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."

Enrique touches a sore spot. "As a country, Cuba isn't better than Mexico," he says, alluding to his country's stature as the 12th-biggest economy in the world. Mexico's $680 billion GDP outstrips that of Australia and Switzerland — though, of course, half of the nation's 105 million inhabitants live in poverty.

Enrique, who hails from the poor southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is a diehard capitalist, he says. It's hard to get ahead in Chiapas, where life is so roughshod that subsistence Mayan farmers sympathize with the armed Zapatista rebel group. But here in the United States — the sky's the limit, even though Enrique is spurned as an illegal.

His day will come soon maybe.

For now, standing on a narrow sidewalk in front of La Esquina del Taco, Enrique stares down the hoopties cruising Dixie Highway. He has pale skin and a wiry build, and he's missing a front tooth. The atmosphere is getting dodgier as the sky darkens, and he's ready to call it a night.

Sure, he'll toast a chela (beer) when Fidel dies, Enrique decides. After all, the güey (dude) is a dictator.

More than on-the-job slights or the Cubans' perceived self-importance, other national groups are rankled by the red-carpet treatment the Cubans get from immigration officials. Under the so-called wet-foot/dry-foot policy enacted during the Clinton administration, a Cuban sneaking into the United States is allowed to stay if he touches dry land.

"They get a green card and a parade in Miami," snaps José Pertierra, a Cuban-American immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C. "I've met Cubans who have crossed the border with Mexicans and actually gone looking for border patrol agents." Although other immigrants say the wet-foot/dry-foot policy is highly unfair, Pertierra believes that President Bush would never consider repealing it — even if Cuban refugees flood into Florida — because "he thinks he owes the Cubans in Miami an election."

Pertierra isn't just any attorney. He's the man who represented Elián González's father in the cross-straits battle to bring the boy back to Cuba.

But the disparities in treatment are most glaring for Haitians, the Caribbean's other boat people.

Abner Clerveaux has done well for himself since his clandestine entry into the United States via the Port of Miami in 1980. The 47-year-old from Port-au-Prince owns several pieces of property — a few homes and some land — and his oldest child is already in college. His English is eloquent, and his clothing is elegant — a far cry from the day he walked off a Haitian cargo vessel with just ten cents in his pocket and the clothes on his body. After being stamped a "Cuban-Haitian Entrant" by the government, it didn't take Clerveaux long to get established. His first job was for the Broward County School Board as a teacher's aide. Then he became a social worker.

"But things were very easy then under Jimmy Carter — they welcomed us with open arms," Clerveaux says in melodic English interrupted occasionally by hearty, low-decibel chuckles.

That welcome mat has since been pulled.

A firestorm erupted this past March when 101 Haitians — exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and bruised — washed up on Hallandale Beach only to be carted off to detention centers. Humanitarian groups and local Haitians argue that after suffering through 22 days drifting in a cramped and decrepit 40-foot wooden vessel, the detainees should be allowed to stay.

"They're treated as a criminal; they are treated like dogs," says Joyce Jennings, pausing from protest chants at a recent rally in front of a shopping plaza on the corner of 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood. "Other people come and they are welcome — we're not welcome."

Like their Caribbean brethren sailing from Cuba, these Haitians fled economic hardship by boat.

As Jennings speaks out, hundreds are gathered around — dancing, ranting, and flashing placards. The calls for "liberty" and "justice" for the Haitian community, and especially for the boatload of recent refugees, alternate from English to Creole. Sometimes cars passing on 79th Street give a honk of support.

Jennings has been protesting practically since she arrived in Florida from Haiti by plane 32 years ago. "I fight for other Haitians because that's my blood," she explains. Jennings speaks better English than many of her fellow demonstrators; as such, she's the unofficial spokeswoman for her group of friends waving signs and flags. "We came here because Haiti is no good," she says. "They kidnap you. They kill you."

Compared to the Haitian refugees' extreme hardship, which South Florida witnessed firsthand in photos and TV coverage, the debate about Castro's health can seem pretty darned trivial.

There are an estimated half-million Haitians living in South Florida, putting the group's size close to that of the Cuban community. Yet many Haitians have to live in the shadows, unable to even get a driver's license, much less vote. In contrast to traditionally Republican-voting Cubans, Haitians tend to lean left. And like much of the poor in the Americas, they respect Castro as a nationalist who has brought literacy and race equality to his country. That respect has increased in recent years since Fidel began sending hundreds of doctors to impoverished and isolated parts of Haiti.

"They see him like Nelson Mandela," says Clerveaux, who these days runs a small real estate office in Pompano Beach and hosts a weekly talk show in Creole that addresses concerns in South Florida's Haitian community.

When the City of Miami floated the idea earlier this year of allocating tax dollars to throw a huge party at the Orange Bowl shortly after Castro dies, people in the Haitian community were understandably upset. "We are against Castro's dictatorship," Clerveaux says. "But for people to prepare to party at someone's death, to us that's repugnant."

Clerveaux loses some of his upbeat and jovial tone as he touches on the disparities between the treatment of national groups. His handsome face and almond eyes seem to dim as his big, warm smile disappears. "Can you imagine," he shakes his head from left to right, "sometimes they have Haitians in the same boat as Cubans and they say 'OK, you can stay' to the Cubans, but the Haitians have to go back."

A fan whirs in his windowless back office. It's warm, but Clerveaux appears cool in a crisp, white, linen shirt.

"There's an assumption that if you're a Haitian, all you want to do is come here to work, and if you're Cuban, you're a political prisoner," he says. "That's nonsense.

"We're not asking that they take away the [Cubans'] benefits," he continues. "And we're also not asking that they take in every refugee. But you don't just return somebody without hearing his case. This is America, where people fleeing persecution are given a chance."

Ultimately, recent immigrants say, they have more urgent matters to discuss than Fidel's health. Guatemalans face mass deportations as longstanding petitions for political asylum are being rejected wholesale by the federal government. Mexicans have ongoing economic problems that have prompted them to leave their homeland. And Venezuelans have Hugo Chávez.

The old-world ambience inside Lirio's Italian Deli & Restaurant seems somehow out of place amid all the sterile stucco of Weston. Whereas the town tries too hard with its unrelenting pastels, palm trees, and Mediterranean-style strip malls, Lirio's dispatches sidewalk tables and a simple wooden coffee bar to achieve a more convincing European feel. It's the kind of place where regular patrons hang out for hours. A salad may lead to a glass of wine, then dinner, more wine, and an espresso to cap it all off. On the way out, customers grab containers of homemade alfredo, pesto, and marinara sauces sitting in a fridge and ready to take home.

The atmosphere in the café is genuinely friendly, with Italo-Venezuelan owner Lirio Casino stopping at tables to chat in English, Italian, or Spanish, depending upon the customer.

Casino considers herself to be an apolitical person who looks for the positive in life. Yet she's here in Florida because of politics. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1998, Casino got a bad feeling. Like much of the middle and upper classes in Venezuela, she decided it would be safer to leave the country. Her lifelong friends are now spread around the world, living in voluntary exile.

"Venezuela is lost — there's nothing that can be done about it," she says in soft, fast-paced Spanish. "He [Chávez] could have made a better Venezuela. With all that money and oil, it should be a rich country like Switzerland. Instead, he broke up families."

Although she misses Venezuela terribly, Casino simply doesn't want any negativity in her life, she says. Living in Caracas right now, she feels, would be toxic. The same goes for the news she sees too frequently on the television about Chávez's buddy and idol, Fidel Castro. To Casino, it's an old, tired story.

"Let him go already," she complains. "It's been the same music for 50 years now."

Casino stirs a straw slowly in her soft drink and exchanges a few quick comments with two Venezuelan women sitting at an adjacent table. One of those women is Carmela Tillero, whose rimless eyeglasses and stable of Spanish adages give her an academic air. She has just finished teaching an Italian lesson over bruschetta and glasses of red wine.

Tillero came to Florida 23 years ago, so she has had her fill of talk about Castro. She couldn't care in the least when or if he dies. "I'm extremely tired of hearing about his illness. But it's not Castro's fault — the blame falls on the Cuban TV coverage in South Florida," she says in Spanish. "It seems like they have nothing better to think about, and by talking about him so much, they make him out to be this great man."

She sees the same thing happening with Chávez.

"Every time somebody says something about Chávez, he seizes the opportunity to go on television and talk about it for four hours. [The media is] making Chávez a symbol like they did with Castro."

It's that awkward time between lunch and dinner at the Borinqueya Restaurant on Stirling Road when hardly anyone is eating. Rain is falling hard on the Western-themed buildings and other remnants of the downhome horse culture that Davie is famous for, so the strip-mall restaurant is near empty.

Soon enough, though, a handful of customers gather at the counter and order a round of Puerto Rican comfort food. The mood is congenial, and everyone seems to know one another. There's a sassy, Jersey-raised Cuban gal working the register and a Puerto Rican father-son duo that runs the joint.

For a small group in the restaurant, they manage to represent most of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

Music videos flash across the TV behind the bar, moving seamlessly from Puerto Rican salsa to Mexican pop. The diners dig into soupy meat dishes like carne guisado and hearty mounds of mashed plantain-and-garlic mofongo.

What does this group think about Castro?

"That man has to die," says the young Cuban woman. "I'm Cuban — my family went through a lot." Then she walks out the door — her shift is over.

Everyone else looks uncomfortable. They don't like the topic, and they're afraid that their comments could be misconstrued.

Sigfredo González, the restaurant's spry chef and owner, decides to play the diplomat, explaining carefully between winces that he has many Cuban-American friends. And the two islands have so much in common: music (i.e., salsa) and sports (i.e., baseball). They speak alike, sharing some vocabulary that many other Spanish speakers might not even recognize. Even their flags are easily confused.

In other words, González doesn't want to offend anyone.

Yet there are no commercial flights between San Juan and Havana. And the political scenario on the islands, with Puerto Rico a protectorate of the United States, is night and day.

So, it's not that González isn't interested in what's going on in Cuba. It's just that he feels there are so many other issues in the world that need to be covered too. "You can't avoid the news about Castro — it's on the Latin channels. And being Latino, you pay attention to what's going on in the economies and politics of Latin America. But we're very Americanized."

A few doors down in the same shopping center, New York's Finest Barber Shop is buzzing with activity. A chorus of electronic hair clippers whirs to service almost a dozen clients as salsa music blares from a flat-screen TV.

The barbers have nicknames like "Chino" (Chinaman), "Flako" (Skinny Dude) and "Rey" (King). The crowd is mostly roughnecks in new kicks — with the sneaker of choice being black or white Reeboks. Lots of baggy pants and sideways-worn hats. It's the kind of place where a street-smart young macho can get a perfect fade and carefully carved chin-strap. The hair is cut close to the scalp, and the beards are thin lines that hug the jawline.

It's a little slice of the South Bronx in the heart of redneck country.

Jeffrey Padín, 29, used to cut hair here, but now he just comes in to hang with the guys. Even though he's been living in Florida for eight years, the Puerto Rican prefers speaking Spanish and switches the conversation back to his native tongue at every opportunity. He has a shy smile, and when he talks, it's in a low, raspy voice.

Padín wears lots of big gold jewelry, two large diamond stud earrings, and plenty of camouflage. He's short, with a stocky build and Asian eyes. Instead of a gold grill on his teeth, he has braces. What might seem like a gruff exterior is actually a meticulously groomed look — and Padín is a gentle, polite young man.

Does anyone in the shop ever bring up Castro?

Well, one of the barbers is Cuban, but if he tries to talk politics, the others just tell him to stuff it. Motioning toward the lone Cuban in a crowd of 20 Hispanics, Padín says: "He doesn't really care because he grew up here. He's accepted the situation."

Instead, the men like to chat about women and who's driving what car, Padín summarizes, pointing proudly at his shiny new silver Mercedes sedan.

Contrary to popular belief, most Cuban-Americans in South Florida don't feel the need to meddle in Cuban affairs. Several generations have now spent the majority of or their entire lives here, so they feel no right to claim anything back on the island. According to a recent survey conducted by Coral Gables-based Hispanic opinion pollster Bendixen and Associates, 67 percent of Cuban-Americans in South Florida think property in Cuba belongs to the people living in or otherwise using those buildings and land today. Just 20 percent feel that the assets should go to those who have property titles predating Fidel Castro's revolution.

Also, four out of five of the 600 Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that Bendixen surveyed in September say that, if given the option of returning to a free and democratic Cuba, they'd stay here.

This ambivalence comes as no surprise to Juan Serio, a 40-year-old travel agent from Maracaibo, Venezuela. Maybe it's because Serio lives in Delray Beach, 60 miles north of Miami, or maybe it's because he's part of a younger generation, but he says the Cuban-Americans he knows have completely detached from their homeland. "They don't even talk about Castro," he notes. With the warmth of a salesman, Serio chuckles good-naturedly at the idea of a drastic shift in Cuba once Castro passes away. "It's going to be the same, whether he's there or not. It's not just him — it's a whole government."

South Florida made it through the July announcement of Fidel's handing power over to his brother Raúl without a slew of Cuban-Americans launching boats into the water to visit their homelands or carry cousins back to U.S. shores. "We've already had a dress rehearsal of sorts," asserts Phil Peters, an economist with the Lexington Institute in D.C. who visited Cuba in December. "When Fidel fell sick, the only thing that happened in Miami was some dancing in front of Versailles."

Yes, there was flag-waving and horn-honking in front of the Cuban café on Calle Ocho in Little Havana — which might more aptly be called Little Bogotá these days — and local television stations cut off regular prime-time programming to flash coverage of the small-scale celebration and inform all of South Florida that Fidel was sick. Thanks for that news flash.

Some folks in Miami are still gearing up for what they expect to be a massive outpouring of emotions the day el comandante leaves this Earth.

Sánchez, of Democracia, expects many in his 26,000-strong network to participate in a civil rights demonstration in Little Havana. The march is aimed at creating an environment for exiles to channel their energy in "a constructive, solemn manner."

In an effort to put a positive slant on the inevitable community reaction, Democracia has drafted a list of suggested slogans for people to brandish. One states, in Spanish: "Cuba had one bad son, but there have always been more good ones."

"OK, so there will be this big party and the next day, what?" asks Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who defected in 1994. "Cuba will be the same. You're going to celebrate the death of one person?"

If insiders like Amuchastegui are right, Fidel's long-awaited demise will be seriously anticlimactic. He'll die, a very rich old man, in his own bed. Leaders across much of Latin America — especially Fidel's buddy Chávez in Venezuela — will make some poignant comments. The funeral procession could outdo that of Princess Diana of Wales, and then the media hordes will have lost another colorful character to cover. Florida politicians will have to find a new monster to galvanize voters.

And the already diluted exile community will have to find other talking points for its cause.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie