February 19, 2008 / 1:11 PM / 12 years ago

Castro move sparks relief, suspicion in Miami

MIAMI (Reuters) - In the heartland of opposition to Fidel Castro, some Miami exiles expressed relief at the Cuban leader’s resignation on Tuesday but others said they doubted it would end his overwhelming influence on their homeland.

A Cuban-American sells Cuban flags in front of the traditional Cuban restaurant Versailles in Miami's Little Havana, February 19, 2008, after Fidel Castro announced his resignation as President of Cuba. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The news that the 81-year-old Castro would not seek a new term as president after nearly a half century in power sparked no immediate celebrations in the streets of Little Havana, the neighborhood west of downtown Miami that is home to many of the area’s 650,000-strong exile community.

“It’s very good that Fidel resigns. But if Fidel dies, it’s better,” said physical therapist Juan Acosta, 58, as he stopped for a newspaper on Calle Ocho, Little Havana’s main street.

“The system there is almost over. You are seeing the end,” said Acosta, who left behind his mother and sister when he left the island in 1980. “The dictatorship is over.”

A subtropical U.S. city just 200 miles north of the Caribbean island, Miami has been dominated by Cuban exiles for as long as Castro has held power.

Among the thousands who fled the island after Castro’s 1959 revolution were Cubans whose property and businesses were nationalized, survivors of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and many who say they were jailed and tortured or lost loved ones to government executioners.

Miami became a hotbed of exile politics where virulently anti-communist militants plotted against Castro and those who failed to oppose him found themselves targeted by hate campaigns and, occasionally, car bombs or Molotov cocktails.

But as some of Castro’s most ardent foes died and younger generations of Cuban-Americans, born in Florida, became the majority, the exile community mellowed.

‘WON’T BE OUT OF THE WAY’

On Tuesday, motorists honked horns, a pink placard called for “Freedom for Cuba” and just a few demonstrators waved red, white and blue Cuban flags outside the popular Versailles restaurant, where exiles chatted about the news over their morning coffee.

“I’d be more relieved to see him tortured and killed. He won’t be out of the way,” said Alfredo Hidalgo-Gato, a U.S.-born son of Cuban parents who left Cuba in 1959. “It’s just a political move. He won’t be out of the way until the day he dies.”

“It’s to put somebody in place before he dies,” he said. “Whatever he does, it’s for his benefit, not ours. Not for the liberty of Cuba, not for the exiles and not for his people.”

The Cuban-American National Foundation, a leading anti-Castro organization, said Castro’s resignation “opens a new chapter in the history of the revolution and the history of the Cuban people.”

“After 50 years there is no more one-man rule in Cuba because his successors cannot maintain the same power and the same position that he attained during the last 50 years,” CANF president Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez said.

Castro, 81, said he would not return as head of state. He has not appeared in public since undergoing stomach surgery nearly 19 months ago.

Slideshow (5 Images)

The streets of Little Havana erupted in noisy celebrations when Castro announced in July 2006 that he was handing over power temporarily to his brother, Raul. The reaction was more subdued on Tuesday as exiles already accustomed to Castro’s absence from the spotlight wondered what comes next.

Orlando Goncalez, 80, came to Florida 44 years ago and on Tuesday remembered those lost to the revolution as he sat on a folding chair on a street corner, selling Cuban flags.

“A lot of my friends were executed. For nothing,” he said. “But the end of the nightmare is near. No one knows when, but soon.”

Editing by Tom Brown and Patricia Zengerle

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