Adiós, Fidel

So when Fidel Castro dies, the party in Miami was supposed to be so big that the city would have to open the Orange Bowl. Everyone was going to jam in, waving flags and posters, parading triumphantly around the arena. They were going to bring salsa bands on the backs of trucks, and the old Bay of Pigs veterans were going to float through the crowds like archangels descended from heaven.

That's what Miami-Dade anti-Castro activists would have you believe (though the plan was quickly shot down by city officials as negative and tasteless).

How will the rest of South Florida, AKA Broward and Palm Beach, respond? Well, judging from the sentiments of a lot of local Latinos, there might be a small gathering in the back room of a pizzeria somewhere.

South Floridians have been told for years — hell, decades — that the Castro regime is going to implode.

The countdown to Fidel's demise began when thousands of Cubans sought refuge in South Florida after Castro seized control of the island in 1959. Many in the first waves were wealthy elites who had the education and finesse to make their plight heard in Washington.

Determined to get back the clout and grandeur they left behind, the early refugees set out on a series of mishaps, starting with 1961's Bay of Pigs invasion flop and culminating in the frenzy over custody of young Elián González in 2000. In between, South Floridians lived through impromptu street protests, assassination plots, propaganda campaigns, paramilitary operations, and countless other bobbles.

By now, though, even a significant number of once-militant Cuban exiles are convinced that the hardline U.S. policy toward their home country as well as the constant anti-Castro clamor from Miami have contributed to keeping the bearded dictator in power.

"The embargo has actually helped Fidel Castro," says Ramón Saul Sánchez, president of the Miami-based anti-Castro movement Democracia, referring to longstanding federal restrictions on trade and travel. "He can portray the David versus Goliath. The more we pull, the more he pulls." Removing the embargo, Sánchez adds, "would take away everything that allows him to portray himself as a victim of U.S. imperialism."

On top of everything else, it now appears that the stories about Castro's frailty — which since July have been relentlessly splashed across the front pages of South Florida dailies and led nightly newscasts — might have been misleading. Not only is 80-year-old Castro reportedly recovering from last summer's intestinal surgery but he's also contemplating taking the helm again.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, after going-on-50 years, tolerance for the radicalized Florida-based cubanos and their obsession with an aged dictator has run thin, particularly among other Latino or Haitian immigrants in Broward and Palm Beach.

La Esquina del Taco restaurant and bar sits on Dixie Highway in Lake Worth. Although the watering hole is brand spanking new, the ambience is familiar. Mexican banda music, with its hyperactive tubas, blares from a corner jukebox lit up like a carnival ride. Otherwise, though, the joint is dark, cramped, and dreary. On a recent Saturday night, a line of young, able-bodied men sit along the bar, each with an open bottle of Corona in front of him. It's only 7 p.m., but already much of the clientele is tanked. La Esquina could be a cantina in Anywhere, Mexico.

So what do the compadres at La Esquina think about Fidel Castro's health?

Despite being blasted with updates on Spanish-language TV, they're not interested in Castro. There are few fans of the dictator in this group, but — actually — they aren't fond of Cubans either. "We have to fight for our liberty here, and the Cubans show up speaking a little English," spits Pancho, a 31-year-old landscaper with bloodshot eyes, stocky build, and reddish complexion. He's so drunk, the alcohol seems to seep from his pores. "We don't have opportunities like the Cubans."

Pancho grew up in the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz, from which Castro famously launched his revolution in 1956. Veracruz is renowned for its gorgeous guayabera-wearing mulattos and annual salsa-laden carnival celebration, making it a cultural cousin of Cuba's. As an oil state, unionized labor is strong, and left-leaning politicians have the upper hand. For many veracruzanos, the departure of Castro's revolutionary boat, the Granma, from its shores is a point of pride. But Pancho couldn't care less. He's been slugging it out in Florida for four years without a work permit, and he fails to see what makes the Cubans so damned special.

After two years in South Florida, 33-year-old Enrique, another landscaper, feels even less love for the exiles. "They think we're below them," he says, lifting his right foot and pointing to the sole of his shoe. "Since they have papers, they think they're better. But they're lazy. They're always saying 'take it easy' on the job. Since they don't like us, we don't like them."