LITTLE HAVANA—Someone tweeted me a simple question last night: Why are people celebrating the death of Fidel Castro?
Politics is politics. But isn’t celebrating someone’s death a little macabre? Well as one of the many people who was out there on the streets of Little Havana in that celebration last night, let me try to explain why. The answer is a little longer than a tweet, so I’ll put it here instead.
On Wednesday, I went to my grandparent’s house in Little Havana to have lunch. As I chatted with my 87-year-old grandfather, another elderly man yelled for him over the front gate. It was Abel Nieves, who was born in Cuba, like my grandparents and my parents. When he was 16, in 1959, he was jailed by Fidel Castro for “counter-revolutionary activity.” He didn’t come out out of his cell until he was 38. He still has his jail number tattooed on his chest, put there by his captors.
Nieves, my grandfather and I talked about the torture Nieves endured back then. He talked about the forced labor and the innumerable friends who died behind bars in horrible conditions.
Lovely lunchtime conversation, right? But this is pretty standard stuff for us Cuban-Americans.
When I was a child, living with my family in the outskirts of Washington, DC, there was a small community of Cubans that formed my family’s inner circle. Dinner conversations would inevitably turn to politics, specifically the Castro brothers, dictatorship, torture, murder.
I remember Bacilio, a friend of my father, who had been political prisoner in Cuba. Some of his fingers were cut off in jail. He still managed to work as a carpenter in the U.S. He even built a tree house for me and my brother.
Two of my classmates were the children of Armando Valladares, a poet, artist and activist who was imprisoned for 22 years in Castro’s Cuba. Human rights groups like Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience. His only crime was refusing to kowtow to Castro. In his memoir Contra Toda Esperanza (Against All Hope), published after his release, he describes his time in prison as “8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being.” I still have a drawing he dedicated to me hanging on my refrigerator.
These were the people and the stories that I grew up with. These are the stories that all Cuban-Americans know. My grandfather was repeatedly rounded-up and thrown in jail. The threat was always there that some day he wouldn’t get released and return home. Entire branches of our family tree were left behind. My father was sent to the U.S. as an orphan because his parents feared for his future under the totalitarian regime.
These are my earliest memories of politics, and some of my earliest memories in general. Politics is our life story. And Castro was a lingering shadow. You could throw a punch at it, but you couldn’t do it any harm. He divided and displaced our family. It was a pain we lived with every day. And the impotence of waking up every morning knowing that the son of a bitch is still alive, living the good life, like the head pig in Animal Farm, while the rest of the people suffer under him.
That ended last night.
It still seems unbelievable. There have been so many false alarms over the years. I was working at the Miami Herald during one of the last ones. I cried at the news of his death, before realizing it wasn’t real— just speculation, like so many times before.
This time, however, I didn’t do anything at all. I couldn’t feel. It didn’t hit me until I was driving in Little Havana, on my way to a celebration, and I called my mom at 1 AM.
“Fidel Castro died,” I told her, waking her with the news.
“Se murio!” she yelled to my father. Her voice was quivering. I’ve never heard her do that before. Fidel Castro is dead. She repeated it so many times that my eyes watered as I drove on towards the celebration of car horns, banging pots and pans, and cheers. It was an eruption of pure joy.
As I walked into the crowd, my heart opened wide. Strangers hugged, the drums thundered and the sidewalks overflowed. Chants echoed “Fidel! Tirano! Llevate tu hermano!” (Fidel, you tyrant, take your brother with you!). People were singing the Cuban National Anthem. Cigars were lit. As always, the coffee was flowing from the windows of Versailles Restaurant, ground zero for Cuban-American politics.
People kept showing up throughout the small hours of Saturday, dressed in club clothes. They were singing, dancing, and shouting for freedom in the rain, too overjoyed to care about scuffing their heels in the street.
A Cuban-born friend of mine was there. He jumped across the drum line and hugged me. Euforia! he shouted. Euphoria.
For people like us, this is a moment we’ve always thought about never thought would actually come true. We knew how the movie would end, but somehow we couldn’t be certain it ever would until we saw it with your own eyes and felt it in our own hearts. Last night it happened.
Fidel Castro is dead.
The pain he leaves behind endures. The heartbreak. The horrors. The inter-generational trauma. Tomorrow, we have to get back to our families, get back to the politics of a situation that seemingly never changes. There’s a lot of work to be done.
But today, euphoria.