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Adiós, Fidel

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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.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie