Decades of angst and longing turned to jubilation on Miami’s streets last summer as the startling news spread that Cuban leader Fidel Castro had undergone emergency surgery for a secret ailment and handed over power to his brother Raul.
Now, almost a year later, exiles’ elation on that July 31 has been transformed into more doubts, more second-guessing, confusion and frustration.
Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits now realize that what looked like a watershed moment only ushered in a new phase of uncertainty. It’s unclear whether change is coming to Cuba’s government soon or whether Cuba will remain the hemisphere’s communist holdout.
And yet, changes - often nuanced and filled with contradictions - are unfolding as key players from Cuba to Miami to Caracas and Madrid jockey for position to influence the island’s future.
In Beijing, Moscow and European and Latin American capitals, officials are scrambling to cut deals with Havana, as Caracas props up the island’s economy with oil.
In Washington, Castro’s illness has launched a series of new debates and divisions over trade, travel and U.S. government pro-democracy broadcasts to Cuba.
In Havana, Raul Castro has ordered a series of studies on the socialist economy, likely with a view to changing it. He has stopped short of delivering. Not while Fidel lives, Cuba experts like former CIA analyst Brian Latell say. So Cubans keep waiting, while their government steps up its propaganda proclaiming that a U.S. invasion of the island is imminent.
Maite, a retired writer in her 50s who lives in Havana, said Cubans reacted to Fidel’s illness in one of three ways: “Those who were ecstatic, those who were indifferent and those who were crying from sheer panic.”
Nowhere in the United States has the impact of Cuba’s power plays been felt more than in South Florida, a region shaped in large part by exiles’ hopes and trepidations. The exile community has spent 48 years trying to make sense of the Cuba puzzle.
For the past two months, a dozen reporters, photographers and videographers in joint projects of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald spread through the hemisphere to document signs of Cuba’s slow but steady evolution - a story that last year looked as if it could unfold instantly.
To understand the conflicted mood, one must carefully juxtapose the frustrations of aging exiles with a younger generation’s keen interest in the future of an island they’ve never seen. Or peel away at layers of misunderstandings with racial undertones that have many exiles wondering why those on the island have yet to rise up - and some in Cuba fearing that an exile-inspired invasion is coming.
Older exiles have always tried to laugh at their predicament, finding solace in comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes’ take on Fidel Castro. But for the first time in his four-plus decades in exile, Alvarez Guedes, 79, has cut Cuban politics from his usually biting routines.
“It’s a very sad situation,” he said. “I don’t see any big changes coming in Cuba anytime soon - maybe in another 50 years.”
Esther Aulet’s skip in her step has vanished over the course of this year.
“All my hope of seeing a free Cuba is gone now,” Aulet, 74, said recently outside La Carreta restaurant in Westchester, Fla., where hundreds gathered last summer to cheer the news that the most hated man in South Florida appeared to be one step from the grave.
Alberto Castro, 45, is among those so deeply marked by the Cuban government that he says he long ago abandoned hope. The Miami Beach resident was born in a prison hospital near La Cabana, where, he says, the government sent his parents for trying to escape the island. He’s not keeping a death watch.
“I don’t care about Castro anymore - he can die today, for all I care,” said the American Airlines flight attendant and artist, who draws the likenesses of 19th century Cuban independence patriots on surfboards. His best work features Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo.
Fifty-five years ago, Castro’s father, also named Alberto, became a student activist set on overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. Alberto Castro eventually joined Fidel Castro (no relation) as one of his guerrilla leaders.
When he disagreed with Fidel Castro’s turn toward communism, Alberto Castro took up another fight - this time against Fidel - and spent 17 years in prison. He is baffled about why Cubans today don’t revolt.
“I don’t understand how they don’t reject the system but instead have surrendered to it and completely embrace it,” Castro, 78, said.
South Florida’s older exiles, carrying the pain of having had their lives derailed by Castro’s revolution, have passed along their life lessons to their children and grandchildren. That’s why so many fresh young faces filled the crowds of those celebrating in pockets of Miami-Dade County last summer - on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, in Westchester and in Hialeah.
Many Americans outside South Florida, not understanding the dynamics of a half century in exile, looked aghast at the TV scenes of street celebrations that wished death on a dictator.
“I would not criticize those Cubans on the street. I think it’s a testament to the diversity of our community that there were so many young people along with the older Cubans on the street,” said Diane Cabrera, 24, spokeswoman for Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), a network of young Cuban Americans attempting to establish ties with young Cubans.
Her group didn’t go to celebrations - they held a vigil on the Miami Beach shoreline, praying for those on the island.
“Cubans did not get to decide who would govern their country,” she said. “It’s clear the Castro brothers ... want power at any cost.”
Rolando Llanes, 46, a Cuban-born architect, says the Miami crowds’ “banging of pots and pans and horn-blowing did not speak to me,” yet he understands why younger Cuban Americans partied.
“I told my parents it was a tribute to Cuban exiles like them,” Llanes said. `I told them: `You guys have done such a good job as caretakers of our Cuban heritage and pride that it’s been passed on and absorbed by these kids, who consider themselves Cuban exiles even though they were born here.’”
Joe Garcia, 43, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation and now president of the Democratic Party of Miami-Dade, says optimism is needed now more than ever: “There are people 90 miles from here (in Cuba) who need us, so we can give them a long-term reality.”
For many exiles and younger Cuban Americans, it has become evident that even after Fidel Castro, 80, dies, his government’s grip will likely linger. Many had expected a nationwide show of civil disobedience - just as repressed Cubans had done against Spanish rule, the U.S. occupation after the Spanish-American War and corrupt presidents before Castro’s revolution.
Such comparisons ignore the Castro government’s control of all aspects of people’s lives, said Jaime Suchlicki, 67, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
“The Cuban people are fearful, intimidated, they can’t freely communicate, so they can’t form an organized opposition,” Suchlicki said.
On the surface, Castro’s ceding of power has had no immediate consequence - the Caribbean’s Berlin Wall remains fractured but standing. Young Cubans disenchanted with their daily struggles under Cuba’s communist system have not taken to the streets as they did in 1994, taking the Castros by surprise during the demise of the Soviet Union, which sent Cuba’s economy into a tailspin and led to a rafter crisis.
Exiles’ hopes of a Cuban dissident or secretly disgruntled Cuban official staring down the charisma-impaired Raul and his military forces have evaporated.
“It seems like everyone is taking part in a conspiracy of silence,” said Jose “Pepe” Hernandez, 70, director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Miami Dade College sociologist Juan Clark,68, who studies the psyche of Cubans since the 1959 revolution, thinks those on the island are reacting to almost a half century of government propaganda.
Cubans have grown weary, he said, of keeping “a rebellious attitude burning inside.”
Added Diego Suarez, 80, director of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council: “The Cuban people are living in denial, wearing a mask. The repression has increased, as we have learned from Cuba’s opposition groups.”
The Cuban government has also spent decades highlighting racial tensions in the United States and ignoring civil-rights victories in an attempt to divide predominantly white exiles from the mostly Afro-Cuban population on the island.
In Cuba, many blacks told The Miami Herald they fear that white exiles will return to take back property that once belonged to them.
Ramon Colas, 45, a former independent librarian and dissident who left Cuba in 2001 and now runs a Cuba race-relations project in Mississippi, says that Castro has not faced Cuba’s legacy of racism.
The Afro Cuban points to the overwhelmingly white generals in Cuba’s armed forces, and notes that after almost a half century in power, Castro has had only two prominent blacks in any positions of authority - Commander Juan Almeida, a hero of Castro’s revolution, and Esteban Lazo Hernandez, whom Castro tapped last summer as part of a two-man team to oversee education under Raul’s watch. And those two men are perceived by many Cubans as figureheads, Colas said.
“No black has held a key position, not even leading a (military) mission overseas,” Colas said.
By contrast, Colas points to Cuba’s war of independence in 1895, “when many leaders were black. This never happened in this revolution. Next to Jose Marti was a black, Antonio Maceo. Fidel has no black man at his side.”
Many Cuba-watchers acknowledge that change on the island is almost certain to come slowly - even without Castro.
“Now, there is a growing realization that the succession of power has taken place - and that’s it,” Suchlicki said.
Carlos Saladrigas, 58, entrepreneur and director of the Cuba Studies Group, agrees.
“Lamentably, I don’t believe that the rabies ends after you kill the dog,” he said, referring to Castro’s 48-year rule of Cuba. “To a large measure, the regime is institutionalized. In recent months, we’ve seen that a perfectly executed de facto succession has taken place.”
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., maintains that Raul’s succession is more an illusion than a reality.
“Those who believe that there has been a `succession’ of power in Cuba are mistaken,” said Diaz-Balart, 52. He added that Raul will not be able to maintain power in Cuba for long once Fidel dies, just as the dictatorships of Spain’s Francisco Franco and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo ended after their deaths.
“Like in those cases, the gangster regime of Fidel Castro will not be able to be maintained for long once its gangster-in-chief and founder, Fidel Castro, is gone.”
Huber Matos, 88, once a Castro revolutionary commander, also believes the political outcome would have been different had Castro died last summer because an uprising could have taken root. Matos, whose ideological falling out with Castro cost him 25 years in a Cuban prison, said the island is in political limbo now.
“Fidel is not running the country, but he’s not letting anyone else run it either.”
Foretelling, perhaps, the conflicting emotions of today was a tune by the late salsa queen Celia Cruz that energized the crowds as Miami Cubans young and old danced in the streets last summer amid cheers of Cuba si, Castro no!
Its title: “Rie y Llora” - laugh and cry.
(The Miami Herald has withheld the surnames of the people interviewed in Cuba and the names of the team that reported from there, because they lacked the Cuban visa required for journalists to work on the island. Translator Renato Perez contributed to this report.)