For Cubans in North Texas, Castro’s death means ‘relief’ and ‘hope’

A woman hands out a special edition of the Miami Herald with the headline “Castro Dead,” in front of the Versailles Restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami as members of the Cuban community react Saturday to the death of Fidel Castro.
A woman hands out a special edition of the Miami Herald with the headline “Castro Dead,” in front of the Versailles Restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami as members of the Cuban community react Saturday to the death of Fidel Castro. The Associated Press

While thousands of Cuban Americans poured into the streets of Miami overnight Friday and Saturday to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, Grace Alvarez was up until 4 a.m., taking it all in from her home in Garland.

“We have been waiting so many years for this moment,” said Alvarez, 75, a Realtor who came to the U.S. from Cuba on a student visa in 1961. “So many people have died waiting for this moment.”

Castro’s death, which was announced late Friday night, set off celebrations among Cubans all over the world. The reaction in North Texas ran the gamut from jubilation to cautious optimism to indifference.

‘There are two words’

“For me, there are two words,” said Miriam Rodriguez, 64, who retired from the Dallas Central Library in 2012 and now helps teach library sciences at Texas Woman’s University. “The first is relief, because I’m getting old and was thinking he would never die. The second word is hope. I’m hopeful for the country now.”

Rodriguez left Cuba when she was 31 with her husband and two children and has lived in Dallas ever since.

She last visited Cuba in September.

“It was saddening. The buildings were falling apart,” she said. “I told my nieces, ‘I came here to see you, but I don’t want to go out anymore.’ 

Rodriguez said older generations might be feeling somewhat nostalgic, “probably because they miss the system that didn’t really work,” she said. “But the younger generations, they are having none of that. They want computers. They want access to technology.”

A historic day

Ernesto Velez, 47, was cautiously hopeful about the future but said change would still be slow to come to Cuba, now under the leadership of Castro’s brother, Raul.

“Today is a very historic day for Cubans there and in the U.S.,” said Velez, whose family owns Cafe Havana in Lake Highlands. “For me, I have very close relationships with my country and my family, but at the same time, I feel hopeful because I know the Castros will be gone one day. It will still be difficult, because the people around Raul who have become close to him don’t want him to leave, even though he says he will in 2018.”

Velez left Cuba when he was 22 years old, but his parents are still there.

“I grew up with the revolution, with the idea of maintaining socialism, but then when I started traveling and seeing other places, I realized Cuba was not for me,” he said.

Velez said slight change has come under Raul Castro — but not a lot.

“It’s becoming more open little by little,” he said. “In the past, you couldn’t have a restaurant. Now you can, but once you start to make a little bit of money, they’ll shut you down.”

Alvarez said plenty of older-generation Cubans still in their native country will mourn “because they still believe in Castro.”

“Those who don’t believe in him dare not say so, because they will be killed,” she said.

‘That’s how you pay me’

Alvarez felt betrayed when President Barack Obama met with Raul Castro and the two began a path toward normalizing relations between the two countries, she said.

“I know people say [Castro] did a lot of good — like in education, it’s free,” she said. “But once you’re educated and you want to leave the country, they say, ‘Wait, you have to stay here for so many years and work for us.’

“Fidel would say, ‘That’s how you pay me for what I have given you.’ 

Jorge Baldor, founder of the Dallas-based Latino Center for Leadership Development, provided an alternate viewpoint, saying Castro’s death hardly portends a new era.

“His passing is immaterial. His influence has already passed,” said Baldor, 61, who left Havana for the U.S. in 1962.

Baldor said many Cuban-Americans have been so consumed with hard-line stances against the Castro regime that they forget about the plight of refugees from other Latin-American countries.

A pathway to the U.S.

“Cubans have an easier path to America today because of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which states that if you are Cuban and can make it here, then you can become a permanent resident after one year,” Baldor said. “So how can someone with these special privileges and rights be so disdainful of others who go through the same thing they do, they just don’t have the same rules?”

Baldor last visited Cuba in the 1980s.

“There was a lot of scarcity and it was difficult to see that,” he said. “I had gone in with a lot of images in my head from my childhood, but came away impressed with how resilient the people are. The people are friendly and they are joyful, even if they are going through difficult times.”

Eric Nadel, the longtime radio voice of the Texas Rangers, has led four group trips to Cuba and is taking a 22 people on another trip this Wednesday. The trip was supposed to showcase blues musicians Ruthie Foster of Austin and Seth Walker of New Orleans.

But now that a nine-day period of mourning has been declared, Nadel isn’t sure if the musical performances will be allowed.

“It’s never easy, these trips to Cuba,” said Nadel, who first visited the country in 1995 to watch baseball games. “We always tell people, ‘That itinerary that we gave you, don’t take it too seriously.’ 

‘Their lives are horrible’

Nadel has made plenty of friends in Cuba over the years.

“Their lives are horrible. There are people there doing the same thing I do, but they make $20 a month,” he said.

Nadel’s groups often bring in much-needed supplies, such as vitamins, tampons, clothing and shoes, as well as towels and sheets for people impacted by Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa.

“You have to be careful. They have laws about what you can bring in,” he said. “But mostly they are just looking for big-ticket items — people who are bringing in air-conditioners.”

Like others, Nadel said Castro’s death will have a different impact on Cubans, depending on how old they are.

“All of the younger people, the people who are probably 50 years old or so, are probably rejoicing,” he said. “People who live out in the country, they think they are better off under the Castros. They have healthcare, they have education, but what they don’t have is money.

“Some see him as kind of the senile grandfather figure who is best ignored, while others see him as the dictator that he was — a man who had thousands of people killed.”