MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban-Americans poured into the streets of Miami’s Little Havana on Saturday to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, while leaders of Florida’s Cuban emigre community portrayed his passing as a hopeful sign for reform in their homeland.
Thousands of revelers turned out in force on the streets of the city’s Cuban neighborhood, waving flags, setting off fireworks and banging on pots to mark the death of a man who many scorned as a dictator.
But the crowd included many people too young to remember Castro in his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of them sounded more pragmatic than ideological when speaking about his death at the age of 90.
Vendors selling “Cuba Libre” flags and T-shirts set up shop on nearly every street corner, as rows of cars, many of them blaring horns, flooded the streets.
At the Versailles Restaurant, long a center of the city’s exile community, the wait for a table at lunchtime was more than an hour and a half.
“This is the happiest day of my life, Cubans are finally free!” said Orlidia Montells, 84, who said she had waited for Castro to die for more than 50 years.
But Julie Peñate, a 15-year-old student who was at the Versailles with her family, spoke of Castro’s death in terms of the future. She said it was an opportunity to build on the warmer relations established under the Obama administration.
“I think now we have a more civilized bond and we can come together and do something greater,” Peñate said.
Hugo Ravelo, an 83-year-old former casino employee, said he hoped change would come to the Caribbean island, but he was not sure how much would happen.
“The other one is still there,” he said, referring to Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.
Ric Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, was more optimistic. He believes Castro’s death should free his brother to push ahead with measures that the more hard-line “Commandante” had long opposed.
Cuba Now is a nonpartisan advocacy group that played a pivotal role in persuading President Barrack Obama to re-establish diplomatic relations with the communist nation.
“We know that Fidel opposed normalization with the United States and put the brakes on many of the economic reforms that his younger brother tried to implement,” Herrero said. “This opens up space for Raul.”
On the streets of Miami on Saturday, the anger and frustration of many Cubans over decades of political repression in their native land was palpable.
One man held an effigy of Castro’s severed head on a stick, while others carried signs calling on Satan to “take care” of Castro in hell.
Many people were also wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sporting “Trump Pence” T-shirts. The attire suggested that at least some of Miami’s Cuban-Americans are counting on President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, to play a crucial role in shaping U.S. policy with Cuba in the post-Fidel era.
Dasiel Bellido de Luna, a 27 year-old medical technician who arrived from Cuba three years ago, said he did not support all of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but he thought the president-elect would deliver on his promise of renegotiating with Cuba.
“Trump has said he wants to make a better deal than the unilateral agreement made by (President Barack) Obama,” Bellido de Luna said, referring to executive orders signed by the U.S. president. “This is the time to force them to open the Cuban economy to its citizens.”
But Cuba Now’s Herrero said the Trump administration should be careful to avoid President Ronald Reagan’s mistake of isolating Cuba at the end of the Cold War.
“That will only embolden its hard-liners and further delay change,” Herrero said. “Now more than ever is time for the United States to fully open itself to the Cuban people.”
Like Herrero, Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola is hopeful that Trump will think twice about reversing the recent opening between the two countries.
“I think in his heart, he is someone who sees opportunity in Cuba,” said Arriola, a Cuban-American politician who would like to see Cuba set up a consulate in his city.
More than one-third of the 2.5 million residents of Miami-Dade County, which includes the city of Miami, are of Cuban descent, according to 2014 U.S. Census data.
Since the Obama administration began normalizing relations, the number of new Cubans arriving in the United States, particularly the Miami area, has surged. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 9,000 Cubans have entered through Miami during the first months of fiscal 2016, on pace to surpass last year’s rate.
As the number of younger Cubans who did not live through Castro’s revolution has outpaced that of older exiles, attitudes about dealing with the Cuban government have softened.
In September, a Florida International University poll found that 56 percent of local Cuban-Americans “strongly” or “mostly” favor re-engagement with the island.
For some, there is a lingering respect for Castro as an icon of a bygone era, despite his human rights record.
Luis Torres, a 28-year-old medical student in Miami, said Castro was still admired by some people for defying the United States and demolishing Cuba’s rigid class system.
“A lot of people see him as a hero, that he stood up to the U.S.,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis