Castro's legacy expected to remain
By Tim Collie and Chrystian Tejedor | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 20, 2008
"We're seeing one dictator pass the reins to another dictator. Big
deal," said Dr. Jose Azel, summing up the South Florida Cuban
community's reaction to the news of Fidel Castro's retirement.
The region's Cuban exiles, after years of false rumors of Castro's
demise, greeted Tuesday's news with weariness, shrugs and sad laughs.
Some called it a public relations ploy, one that drew far more reporters
than cheering Cuban-Americans to famed watering holes like the
Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana.
Others pointed out that while Castro may be stepping off the stage, he
still pulls the strings in a system he created and ruled for 49 years.
He's being succeeded by his brother Raul, once thought to be the more
doctrinaire Marxist in the family.
"There is very little to rejoice here as a Cuban-American, which I am,"
said Azel, who runs a children's autism center in Sunrise. "I would want
a transition to democracy and free markets, and that is not happening."
That sentiment was echoed in exile enclaves from West Palm Beach to
Miami. Even if Castro soon dies, few expect any cracks to show in Cuba's
economy or its vast internal security apparatus.
"We've waited 50 years and it finally happened, but it went to his
brother," said Rafael Perez, owner of the Havana restaurant at Dixie
Highway and Forest Hill Boulevard in West Palm Beach.
"I hope Raul [Castro] has a different state of mind and, you know, let's
make this a free country. I hope, but I don't see it happening with Raul
there. He has to go."
Perez saw his family lose their cattle farm after Castro seized power in
1959. Like many among South Florida's estimated 1 million residents of
Cuban descent, they fled the island several years later.
Ana Leyva, the hostess at Perez's restaurant who fled the island 14
years ago, said she didn't expect anything to change as long as Cuba's
government remains Marxist with strict controls over free enterprise,
speech and assembly.
Leyva said she was a Fidelista, or Castro sympathizer, during the
revolution, but became disillusioned with the system when she later
studied economics in Germany and saw that people had the freedom to
speak out against their government.
"Nothing will happen," she said. "He just transferred the power to his
brother. Maybe at the beginning there will be some opening for the
public opinion to say there will be a little change. Then, after, they
will close again."
In Hialeah, the mood seemed even more bleak.
"I lived many years in Cuba, and I can tell you that everything is based
on vain hope, on the lie that we'll see something better some day," said
Odalis Ramirez, a waitress working the pickup window at a Cuban eatery.
An evangelical Christian, she fled the island seven years ago after what
she described as brutal religious persecution.
"Everyone here is talking about change, but that's hard to believe,"
Ramirez said. "Change will come when God wants it, or only when they get
rid of everyone in charge."
Broward residents on Tuesday showed a mix of emotion, but few were
"I'm not shocked," said Danny Perez, 34, of Sunrise, whose parents both
grew up in Cuba. "It had to happen eventually, but as far as change, his
brother is in power and he has the same philosophy and the same
principles. I'd like to be optimistic and think any time a regime
changes, people will do something, but I think the fear … is great."
South Florida leaders, who have long been involved in drawing up
municipal and state plans for dealing with massive demonstrations and
boatlifts when Castro left the scene, seemed uncertain about how to
treat Tuesday's developments.
"After 40-some years, I don't know what to think," said Broward County
Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin, whose family left Cuba 14 years
after the revolution. In 2002, Wasserman-Rubin became the first Hispanic
to serve as Broward mayor.
"I don't think it will have immediate results, but the possibility this
may open up some window for the people of Cuba to have democratic
elections is a good thing," she said. "We need to wait and see how
things unravel. It's too early to celebrate just because a brother
passed the gavel to another brother. That is unacceptable."
Some of South Florida's leading experts on Castro and Cuba generally
agreed with the exiles' assessment. Many predicted that change would
proceed slowly with occasional flash points, but they anticipated
nothing resembling the revolutions that swept the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and '90s.
"Raul's not a Gorbachev," said Jaime Suchlicki, a leading Cuba scholar
at the University of Miami Institute for Cuban and Cuban American
Studies, referring to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former reformist leader of
the Soviet Union. "He is not a reformer and if he makes too many changes
people will question that. If you change the economy, the politics could
change, too, and they don't want what happened in Eastern Europe to
Suchlicki was pessimistic about the prospects for change even over the
"There won't be free media or Internet in my lifetime," he said. "The
kids [college-age students] recently challenged [Cuban National Assembly
President Ricardo] Alarcon, but he is not a respected figure in Cuba. If
Raul had been there, the kids wouldn't have dared. They are afraid of
Raul but not afraid of Alarcon."
In South Florida, younger Cubans — especially those born in the United
States — shrugged off the possibility that change on the island might
affect their future.
"Personally, I really don't know what's going on in Cuba," said David
Trujillo, a 19-year-old public relations sophomore at Florida
International University. "I don't trouble myself with any of that stuff
and neither do my parents."
Trujillo, whose parents moved to the United States when they were very
young, said it was hard for him and others in their 20s to relate to the
vocal South Florida Cubans who strive to bring democracy to the island.
"I guess it's because we weren't there ourselves — it's like, out of
sight out of mind," he said. "Since we were here and grew up in America,
we didn't have the troubles they had in Cuba."
Staff Writers Sallie James, Joel Marino, Scott Wyman, Linda Trischitta
and Andrew Ba Tran also contributed to this report.