When Ricardo Mauro Perez’s father died in September, the Cuban Embassy denied him the right to go to his homeland to bury his father.
“The past generation suffered, but we are still suffering,” said Norka Perez, his wife. Standing in Little Havana among more than 1,000 exiles clad in the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag, she was optimistic she might one day go back. “We are celebrating the hope to be free.”
As Cubans on the island mourned the death of Fidel Castro, the exile community in Miami continued to celebrate 288 miles and a political universe away from Havana.
Instead of the usual-rush hour crush Wednesday afternoon, Calle Ocho was the stage for a jubilant rally where people optimistically called for reform on the island. Young and old, some who fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion, some who dream of one day seeing the home of their parents and grandparents, danced and sang to salsa music amid a flurry of flags, Cuban cigar smoke and signs cheering Castro’s death.
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Around 4:30 p.m., the crowd began to swell and fill the street between 12th and 13th avenues as the party atmosphere took hold. Before speakers took the stage, Willy Chirino’s “Nuestro Dia” blasted from loudspeakers and sent the crowd into sing-along.
The rally capped days of cathartic celebration since Castro’s death late Friday. Organized by the 2506 Assault Brigade as an event to unite exiles, the gathering began with a moment of silence to honor those who fell in the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, and the many dissidents who have been killed and imprisoned under Castro’s rule.
Among those is Eduardo Lambert, 76, a veteran who survived the invasion and was briefly captured before returning to the U.S. Like so many, he was awakened at midnight Friday by a phone call from a friend with the news.
“We weren’t able to do it by force in the Bay of Pigs,” he said Wednesday, sitting in front of the monument honoring him and his fellow exiles. “But time took him away.”
Lambert, an economist, was hopeful Castro’s death might signal a new era for Cuba.
Lambert’s attitude echoed throughout Wednesday’s event, which was equal parts victory party and political rally. It marked a stark contrast to the somber atmosphere in Cuba, where a funeral procession carrying Castro’s remains criscrossed the country, with tens of thousands lining the streets to pay their respects to their former leader.
In Miami, a series of speakers roused the crowd with indictments of Castro’s legacy and President Barack Obama’s policy to re-establish relations with the Cuban government. Tinges of U.S. politics colored the crowd as some people yelled "Viva Trump," donned "Make American Great Again" hats and hoisted campaign signs in support of President-elect Donald Trump.
A saxophone player led the crowd in a rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" followed by the Cuban national anthem, “La Bayamesa.’’
"Fidel Castro is no hero," said Sylvia Iriondo, president of M.A.R. por Cuba (Mothers and Women against Repression for Cuba), in an address to the crowd. "He was the most ruthless dictator in the hemisphere."
Naisofi Pieonn, a 27-year-resident of Miami, pushed a cart full of flags and Cuban bread through the morass. She said she had a reason to smile today and the days to come because of the death of Castro.
"It's very difficult in Cuba," she said in Spanish. "I'm happy and my family is happy he is dead."
A plane flying over the crowd with the banner bearing "Viva Cuba Libre," caught the eyes of 9-year-old Yaniel Torres.
Little Havana is all Yaniel knows, but he said he is honored to be celebrating the death of Castro.
“Castro is someone who has killed lots and lots of people,” he said.