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Nov 26 2016
by Karly Matthews

Cuban American Students React to the News of Fidel Castro's Death

By Karly Matthews - Nov 26 2016

When the news of Fidel Castro’s death was reported on major media outlets, many Cuban-American students could barely describe their emotions, which ranged from disbelief to as one student described it, “peace.”

Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba as prime minister and later president from 1958 to 2008, led the Communist Revolution in Cuba. He is known for his disdain for the United States and leadership that caused a flood of political refugees to flee Cuba during his regime.

Castro passed away late Friday night, and his death was announced via televised message by his brother and current Cuban leader Raul Castro. The news was met with a mix of “joy and grief” according to CNN reports, but when Fresh U reached out to Cuban-American students, the overwhelming sentiment was, in fact, joy.

Senior Elizabeth Pantaleon, the vice president of the Cuban American Student Association at the University of Florida, describes her own emotions:

“To my disbelief, I received a message at nearly 1 a.m. that Fidel Castro was dead. I jumped out of my bed because I couldn’t believe the day has come. Like many other Cuban Americans my age, I grew up listening to the stories of how my grandparents had to flee the island and leave everything they had behind to come the United States to start from new. I think back to the many nights of my childhood when I would hear my grandfather listening to the Spanish A.M. radio station late into the night, always hoping to hear the words that would bring him a sense of closure and justice. Unfortunately, my grandfather didn't live to see the day, but I'm sure that he's up in heaven with his family celebrating with pots and pans and cafecito [Cuban coffee]. Although many don’t expect to see immediate changes on the island because Raul Castro is still in power, today Miami is alive in celebration of the death of a dictator who has affected many members of its community on one level or another. Fidel Castro’s death serves as a reminder to members of the Cuban exile community that his dictatorship will not last forever and that one day there will be a free and democratic Cuba.”

For students with family members who experienced Cuban totalitarianism first-hand like Florida State College Jacksonville’s Anthony Julian Cinca, the news was a “relief, joy, [and] satisfaction.”

“My dad was born in Santiago de Cuba, and [my grandparents and he] were able to evacuate by plane to get away. My grandfather was a cardiologist and he had some well-connected friends, so he was able to pull some strings to get plane tickets for my aunt and my uncle. But my other two uncles had to escape by other ways. They were freedom fighters against the Castro regime, so one of my uncles had to escape on a boat to Central America and make his way up through Central America to the States to meet up with my family. My other uncle had to run through the jungle to Guantanamo Bay in the middle of the night. I’ve grown up my whole life hearing about and reading about the evils of the Castro regime, the way that they took away basic rights of citizens under the guise of Revolution. It was easy to do that because Batista was so horrible to the Cuban people, anything other than Batista was preferable until people figured out that one totalitarian dictatorship had replaced the other. As a first-generation Cuban-American, it only gave me a sense of peace to know that now, this could be the start of another Cuban Revolution especially with the way that Obama has started to restore the relationship between Cuba and America. That’s an opportunity for our ideas of freedom to start making their way across the border and even with that, to help assist the Cuban people of removing this tumor of totalitarianism and cutting it out like cancer. Really that was my first reaction. Just peace.”

In Florida, specifically Miami, celebrations erupted at the news of Castro’s passing as Cuban-Americans rejoiced that the totalitarian leader could no longer be an influence. Although not Cuban, Kirsten Buell grew up in Cuban-influenced Miami and is now involved with the chapter of the Cuban American Student Association at the University of South Florida.

“At first I was in shock. I think since I was about 12 years old we heard rumors that Castro died about two times so I was unsure if this time it was true or not. But once I figured it was official I did feel a sense of relief for the country and the many Cuban American friends that I have.”

Another first-generation Cuban-American, James Monroe High School senior Antonella Blanca reacted to the news with a bit of skepticism and concern.

"Being a first-generation American contributes to the opinions that I hold about my parents' home nation of Cuba. My friends often come to me with questions about Cuba, and yesterday was not an exception. I was bombarded with questions of "Is Cuba safe for your family, now?", "Does this change things?", "Is Communism dead in Cuba?" The answer to all of those things is really unknown, but, by what I can personally concur, there are too many variables to reasonably believe that the answer to those questions is "yes." Although Fidel Castro has died and many view this as what Cuba needed to lift the weight of decades of oppression and tyranny, Fidel Castro is not the death that Cuba needs. What needs to die is Fidel Castro's ideas. The only good that could come from this celebrated death now is if his ideas go with him. It is painful to have your Cuban family members come visit you, only to refer to you with political slurs and insults about your American citizenship when you address their starving bodies, torn clothing, and less-than-adequate living conditions. My family members provide me with a million different reasons to defend Castro, and none to justify starvation, oppression, persecution, and greed. Tyranny did not die with Castro. Oppression did not die with Castro. The only thing that died with Castro was Castro. His ideas will continue to live on for at least some time, until the Cuban people open their eyes to the perils around them as a unit. Cubans across the island will both mourn and rejoice for the time immediately following this event, and only time will expose exactly what will happen next. But, until then, Cubans continue to suffer, continue to starve, and continue to live with a Stockholm Syndrome that won't allow for Cuba to return to the prosperous, industrial, and beautiful nation my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents long for Cuba to be."

Despite the justified concerns of some Cuban-Americans, many see Castro's death as a new beginning for Cuba, full of hope and promise. Kayli Torres, of Miami University Oxford, Ohio, describes the moment she shared with her grandmother after hearing the news.

My entire family risked their lives to not just come to the United States of America, but firstly, to make their homeland of Cuba a better place. Family members of mine sacrificed so much for their home and despite their greatest efforts to establish a better quality of life, they were ultimately forced to leave the land they loved so dearly for a nation of hope, of dreams, of life. Many of my family members have since passed on, but on November 26th 2016, their memories were especially honored because on that day, a newfound hope for the Cuban people was born. I awoke that morning to a text from my Abuela completely in Spanish. Her words rejoicing, her heart truly glad as she wrote to me, “my love, there are now less demons in the world.” I agree with her completely. As the second-generation born in the United States, I have a unique bond to the severity of the cruelty that my family suffered. I know it first hand as I see the devastation in my Abuela’s eyes as she describes the day she boarded an airplane to America at age 13 not knowing if she would ever see her mother again. I hear it in the way my father, who is the first generation of our family born in the United States, recounts his memories of growing up in the community of Cuban-Americans who became U.S. Citizens after fleeing Cuba. The Cuban culture they instilled in me through their actions and lessons is one of greatest bravery, relentless integrity, and sincere gentleness. What Fidel Castro did to generations of Cubans - to my family - is nothing less than senseless terror. In an island so beautiful, it pains me to know the sand of the Cuban shore glimmers with the tears of broken hearts and the blood of revolutionaries. However, it is precisely that knowledge which makes me so proud of be a Cuban-American; despite the senseless tragedy the Cubans who came before me endured, their resilience continues to inspire generations to come. Just like the waves that beat against the Cuban shore, my family along with so many others, never stopped believing there would be a better tomorrow. It was that faith-filled belief that kept them fighting. I have come to understand that there is no way to comprehend the occurrence of senseless tragedy and terror. The only choice we have is to move forward. It is in that progression we must have faith in the hope that one day we will see what was unseen in those most destitute of times. By carrying my family member’s love in my heart I am confident their legacy of strength continues - glimmering on one generation to another.

Although Cuba’s future without Fidel Castro’s influence is unsure, his passing could mark a new era for Cuba which only time can make certain.

Lead Image Credit: Marco Zanferrari via Flickr Creative Commons

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Karly Matthews - Temple University

Karly Matthews is a political science and journalism major with a Spanish minor at Temple University. In high school, she was editor-in-chief of her school's online newspaper, a member of the yearbook staff, a Spanish Club officer and a dancer for 12 years. In her free time, Karly drinks too much coffee and follows politics with an obsessive passion. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karlymatthews_!

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