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What Castro’s death means for Miami’s young Cuban American leaders

For many, Fidel Castro’s death is the symbolic end of a painful era in Cuban history. It also is a rally cry for many who are working hard to bring about change on the island — either from within Cuba or from a country an ocean away.

We spoke with a few Cuban American leaders to find out what the death of Castro means for them, their families, and the future of a country many once called home.

This post will be periodically updated. 

Giancarlo Sopo

Giancarlo Sopo

Sopo is a communication strategist and a co-founder and chair of CubaOne Foundation. He was formerly a director of marketing and communications consultant at Benenson Strategy Group, as well as a teaching fellow on Leadership and Presidential Politics at the Harvard University Extension School.

On how Fidel Castro has affected his life:

“The events of 1959 had a profound impact on my life. My grandfather died in a Cuban prison as a political prisoner. My father served in the Bay of Pigs, and died in 1999 without ever being able to return to his country. My mom and her family spent over a decade trying to flee Cuba.”

On what Castro’s death means for him:

“Today is about the future. Cuba has always been more than one man or a pair of brothers to me; it’s the sum of the lives, hopes and dreams of 13 million people—11 million on the island and two million in exile.

“When I learned of the news, I could not help but think of my dad and grandparents. They were never able to return to their country. I also thought about my family that still lives in Cuba and what this means for them. It was an emotional experience.”

On how Castro’s death impacts Miami:

“This is a very emotional day for Cuban-Americans. So many of our families were hurt by the events of 1959.”

On his hopes for Cuba:

“CubaOne will continue to help lead the way in the reconciliation process. We’re more committed than ever to our mission of connecting young Cuban-Americans with their family, peers, and heritage on the island.”

On what Miami should do now:

“Young Cuban-Americans should continue to honor our families’ sacrifices through our work, our love, and our respect.

“In 1998, Pope John Paul II said, ‘May Cuba, with all its magnificent possibilities, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba.’ These words have never been more important. We need to continue engaging the Cuban people and building bridges toward a brighter tomorrow.”

Courtesy of Raul MoasRaul Moas

Moas sits on the board for Roots of Hope and the Community Advisory Board of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. He is the managing director of AGP Miami, an angel investor network.

On how Fidel Castro has affected his life:

“Cuba at large has been a very big part of our family and our identity. Fidel has had a huge role in changing. He’s very much a figure of the 20th century and the 21st century.”

On what Castro’s death means for him:

“Fidel has been dying for a long time. Rather than dying at height of power becoming a mystical figure deity, he became frail, and withdrew from public life. [His] public persona …] was shifted in minds of Cubans.

For our generation, Fidel is a historical footnote in Cuba’s past. He was an old frail man who needed a hearing aid and walker to get around, not a powerful figure of authority that our parents and grandparents grew up with. This is turning the page, closure. It represents an opportunity for change and opportunity to move the interests of Cuban people forward. It is a reminder that it is time for Cuba and for the people of Cuba to look at themselves and ask ‘What future do we want and how do we build that together?’”

On how Castro’s death impacts Miami:

“Miami and Cuba are inextricably linked and will be for very long time. We’re seeing on the streets, ultimately, our expressions of pain that are manifesting themselves as celebration. Our community isn’t celebrating the death of a man, rather the death of a figure that caused so much pain, death, and destruction and all that represents.

This isn’t celebrating one specific death, rather than for the first time in a long time there is the hope that one of the biggest obstacles [for] change in Cuba is now [over].”

“What this changes is that it reminds people that Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and the system they created is not immortal, is not permanent and is subject to change. Time will change everything.”

On his hopes for Cuba:

“Our work is not changing in any way shape or form. Our work has never been focused on bringing down anyone. It’s about lifting up the young people of Cuba and empowering them with what they need to build their future. So, we’re continuing that mission.”

On what Miami should do now:

“My grandmother has said ‘may God have mercy on their soul.’ My parents are kind of elated. This is a time for us to reflect on the past and on pain our community has lived and continues to live. More importantly, to look toward the future and think about how we can support those on the island in a meaningful way and what role we want to have in Cuba’s future.”

“I want to support the many young leaders in Cuba so they have the opportunity to write their country’s future. The diaspora has [a role] to play. Cuba will need all of that in coming years to shape and rebuild its economy.

Fernandez at the Republican National Convention. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Fernandez)

Jessica Fernandez

Fernandez is part of the US Cuba Democracy PAC young leaders group and President of the Miami Young Republicans.

On what Castro’s death means for her:

“Fidel [ripped] apart my family. He jailed my uncles, my grandfather spent time in political prison. My grandfather was forced to leave because he was a leader in the Catholic Church and was told his religion was subversive and anti-revolutionary, because of his belief in God, he was forced to leave. My entire family was affected by the Castros, he took away our homes, our businesses and way of life. He annihilated our way of life.”

On what Castro’s death means for Cuba:

“It’s a new hope for freedom and democracy. For so many years Cuba has had a dark cloud over it. [We’ve had a] murderous dictatorial regime, one of the most evil people to have ever lived and he is no longer here. I’ve never been happy about someone dying, and I’m not cheering the fact that someone died but the fact that thousands of people have been partying for over 24 hours tells you how deep this goes. This tells you how much pain we have gone through as a community, his death is the beginning of the death of Socialism.”

On what Castro’s death means for Miami:

“People in Miami are obviously very happy. We have the largest exile community of Cubans in the world. I think people in Miami [have been] waiting for this moment for a lifetime. They’ve been waiting to say that Fidel is dead and the fact that we could join our family and friends in the street to embrace democratic change in Cuba brought hope to people. The sad reality is the tyranny isn’t over because Fidel’s brother, Raul, still rules the island.

I was very disappointed to see the reaction of some leaders around the world, even Obama who made no mention of the brutal tyranny, who made no mention [of the people] beaten tortured and imprisoned for wanting to make a better life for themselves.”

On what’s next:

“I think now the time to redouble our efforts in supporting organizations that have fought for freedom and democracy in Cuba one organization that has been doing a great job to call for democratic change is Cuba Decide, run by Rosa María Payá daughter of Oswaldo Payá who was murdered by Castro agents for trying to overthrow the regime in peaceful means.

Every business in Cuba is owned by the Cuban government. You have GAESA, who runs the logistics and retail, Gaviota which runs all the hotels. They’re all owned by the Cuban government. When we say people in Cuba are opening their house for homeshare or AirBnB, where do you think they get A/C or modern plumbing? They get those benefits by being communists in Cuba. Those homes are taken away from people who have lived there for decades and given them to communists.”

On what Miami can do:

“Work with dissidents on the island they know what they need as far as resources and support.
Change and have a real call for regime change. Not doing business with Cuba is a big deal because we’re enriching Castro’s government.

We need to support dissident groups that are helping artists and journalists tell the story — the fact that it’s so hard to get information out of Cuba should be concerning for some of the folks from some of these organizations.

We want to continue telling the world our narrative about how we were ripped apart from our homeland. Our dignity, our human rights, we had a claw and scratch and make sacrifices to make it to this country and rebuild our entire lives. [We need to] continue to tell the story because it’s been whitewashed. There’s nothing honorable about Fidel Castro. It’s unfortunate that some organizations that claim to be supporting freedom in Cuba and do the complete opposite.”

On youth involvement:

“I was really impressed with the amount of young people that I saw outside when the news broke on Friday night and Saturday morning. It’s not just the abuelitos and abuelitas it was the young people who have suffered themselves. A lot of things have happened that they share with their kids and grandkids and they were celebrating with their family … We had tears in our eyes for how many people were out there. We shut the streets down. It’s been a party and now we can reinvigorate the call for Democracy in Cuba.”

salvi pascualSalvi Pascual

Pascual is the founder of Apretaste, a startup that uses email to safely and legally connect thousands of Cubans to the Internet each month.

On how Fidel Castro has impacted his own life:

“I think he’s affected the life of all Cubans. He destroyed the whole economy and everyone fled the island. I am one of these who had to flee. My degree is in Cuba and my house. I had to come to America.

“My family was divided and I didn’t find any way to survive in Cuba.”

“I have a humanitarian project, and I’m trying to build Internet access to Cuba. They detained for a month [last year]. It was awful, but I was lucky.”

On what Castro’s death means to him:

“It’s the beginning of a new era. I don’t know what it will be. The symbol of terror has died but not the terror itself. Who knows? … Time is on our side. Raul will die too eventually. Right now we don’t know if Fidel’s death will affect lives of Cubans…”

On what it means for Miami:

“This will start the first ‘Carnival’ in Miami. We’re going to have a holiday on [Nov.] 25th. Everybody is celebrating…”

“Miami was doing a great job before… we should keep doing it. [We should] try to open up information, teaching activism, and providing help. I believe the community is doing a good job. [But now] maybe more people will open their eyes and do more.”

On his hopes for Cuba moving forward:

“Nothing is over. The transition of power already happened. Fidel was an icon. I don’t think anything would change. Maybe now that he is gone people will do more activism. Hopefully his death will encourage people in Cuba to go out and speak louder.”

janelleJanelle Gueits

Gueits is the director of 13 Million Voices, a documentary about peace activism in Cuba and co-founder of Roots of Hope, a non-profit that works to engage young Cubans in the country’s politics.

How has Fidel Castro impacted her life:

“I think in my case, it hasn’t affected my life personally. In the past decade of working in exile communities and on island I’ve seen myself more as an instrument in this cause, which is pursuit of freedom in Cuba.

My grandfather is a teacher turned political prisoner who went blind in a Cuban prison. My other grandfather spent his life writing against the repressive regime in Cuba.”

“I’ve been working with people for a decade who cannot assemble, share their opinions. [There are] decades upon decades of pain that this man represents. When you see people celebrating, it’s less with passing of a man and more to do with a new chapter of a new way to live.”

On her work in Cuba:

“In the years that I’ve worked on the island, I have traveled around the world with very noteworthy Cubans.”

“Huber Matos was one of heads of Cuban revolution. Huber Matos to me represents one of the greatest lies ever told. When Fidel took power, he convinced people to sacrifice themselves with the promise of a free nation. Matos was one of the very first people to do that.”

“He spent 20 years in prison almost died in the wake of that. [This is] the level and extent of manipulation and tyrannical repression and terror that this man caused upon even his most inner circle. Decades and decades later, I see the tentacles of this leadership gripping at necks, mouths and ears of these people.”

“I have family members [who are] political prisoners merely for saying something incorrect. Entire generations cut off from system of Cuba, [who are] basically prisoners in their own homes. People are in constant state of terror of not knowing if a neighbor is tattle-telling on you about what you say, do or don’t do, seeking independent means to support yourself because you’re starving. They can detain for you anything… for something terrifying like ‘pre-dangerousness’.“

“It’s hard for tourists to fathom the level of the Police State in Cuba because what you have is people in civilian clothing terrorizing each other. Ordinary citizens turning on each other, not just police, military and militia.”

“The worst case: We have a very dear friend who collected thousands of signatures to petition for change in Cuba and was recently killed. The government says [it’s from] “mysterious circumstances” but multiple people say he was killed outright. It’s an incredibly repressive state.”

On how Fidel Castro’s death affects Miami:

“In general, when I think about post-election America, [it’s] through [the] Cuban reality. When dramatic things happen it creates opportunity for new people to become interested and invested in a cause. Whether in America or Cuba, we need millennials to realize we’re not future leaders, we’re current leaders. The diaspora should step up into leadership.”

“One thing Fidel has succeeded in doing is dividing the Cuban family. … Fidel broke apart pillars of our community: family, marriage, education, religion. Greatest thing Cubans can do now is create a unified message to say ‘Forget what this man has done to us. This is our new day.’

“All Cubans want change, a day of peace, free elections, right to assemble — the very basic tenets of freedom. I’m personally writing to leaders to see if we can organize a peace march to call for unity in this community. “

On honoring the victims of Fidel Castro’s regime:

“We should think about honoring Fidel’s victims. The man is passing but what is really happening is people want to honor thousands upon thousands of senseless deaths.”

natalia martinez 12-12 f0021Natalia Martinez-Kalinina

Marinez-Kalinina is the general manager at the Cambridge Innovation Center and an advocate for technology and entrepreneurship in Cuba.

On what the death of Fidel Castro Means:

“I don’t feel some of the sentiment that I expected to feel or that I see other people expressing. I don’t feel any sense of relief or joy, to be very honest. I don’t think this really changes much in the daily reality of Cuba. [But] in the scope of the past 70 years it’s definitely a moment.”

On how Castro has affected her life:

“I was born in Cuba and lived there until I was 6. Then we moved to Mexico. My father and I had political asylum. When we moved to the US we also got that through the Cuban Adjustment Act. My family story is not as dramatic or as pained as many others in Miami. We were fortunate not to experience death, imprisonment, and deep trauma.”

“We left Cuba 24 years ago, so in that sense our relationship is more recent than many others.

“Professionally I spent years volunteering and working on initiatives that looked to grow and engage technology and internet on the island. Those issues are fraught with controversy and we believe are obstructed on the island. It’s a daily frustration for people there, and I don’t think that is changing now.”

On how it affects Miami:

“You never know. Sometimes particular change can enliven or build momentum in a new direction. That can happen, and we’ll see if it does. I don’t think we’re going to see much positive change from the Cuban government. If anything, we may see a little of a backlash from the government to regain the memory of Fidel in some way.”

On how Cuba will change:

It will be interesting to see how Cubans on the island will react. I don’t think there will be that much change. He wasn’t this daily active presence that he once had been for a very long time for many Cubans.

On Miami’s role:

I think Miami always has a very interesting role to play and I think our role hasn’t really changed given these circumstances. We are the closest neighbor and natural ally and an extension of the U.S. into Cuba. We are the most educated about the reality of life there and we have most relationships and deepest understanding of what it means to be Cuban.

I think it’s really going to be up to us to support and engage with what we want to see happening on ground there.”

“I see an outpouring of relief … I think for average Cubans on the island, this isn’t changing much. I would caution us against resting on the laurels of this symbolic moment.”

On the Cuban reaction:

“To me, the most interesting thing is what Cubans on the island are doing or how they are engaging with this news. Keeping a finger on that pulse is hard given suppression of communication on the island. It will be really interesting to see how they react more than anything else.”

Kareem TabschKareem Tabsch

Tabsch is the co-founder of O Cinema, an independent cinema on Miami Beach and in Wynwood.

On what Fidel Castro’s death means for Cuba:

“Cuba is a …. place unlike from anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s wholeheartedly a communist country but operates in the shadow of a capitalist government. The presence of Che Guevara is much more present in Cuban iconography and signage than Fidel.

I think that the death of Castro is a great symbolism for certain people, those who have migrated to the US and around the world for whom Castro was the embodiment and reason for all they went through. I don’t think the death of Castro will bring about any significant change in Cuba and it’s a mixed time for a lot of people on the island. The majority of the opposition was born in Fidel Castro’s rule. The feelings are more complex in Cuba from those who were able to see it and then prosper in places like Miami.

I don’t know that tomorrow’s Cuba feels any different from yesterday’s Cuba but I can’t wait to experience it again and see if that’s true or not.”

On how Fidel Castro’s death affects Miami:

“Growing up in Miami, Castro’s death was always rumored for such a long time. It was always kind of a plan ‘When Castro dies…’

It’s very bittersweet because so many people who look forward to the day of Castro’s death, not because of his death but the death of his symbolism. We went out to Calle Ocho last night to watch people and so many of them were young people.

All I kept thinking was ‘man if this was 10 or 15 years ago this would look very different because the older people would have still been alive. He would have died in power versus retirement, so the sense of hope would have been even more so. Castro died as a retired dictator, he’s already been succeeded by his brother. I think there is a weird thing — a lot of people are still operating on the symbolism of the death of someone who marked all of our lives in such significant ways.

… I went to Cuba for the first time three weeks ago. Castro was a part of our narrative almost as much as any family member. The revolution coming to be and taking over was a significant part in the lives of so many Cubans and Cuban Americans. I don’t think that anyone [has] false hopes about change for Cuba and the country. It not gonna happen just because Castro died. It’s a significant end of an era and person who implemented far reaching things that affected the lives of so many people.”

On how he hopes Cuba changes:

“This is not tied to the death of Castro. After having visited, all I could think was that Cuban people need to and will determine their own future. It won’t come as the result of other forces. What I see and hope continues to happen is the economic change. I think that’s what brings in change and more exchange with the world and US. The greatest export we have as a US nation is our sense of democracy and possibilities… I think that’s the greatest thing for post-Castro and future Cuba. The Cuban people will determine their own future.

…At least part of the old guard has died and the newer younger generations get to create and design their own future for themselves, not as a result of old men with outdated ideas.”

On returning to Cuba:

“I don’t imagine I will see a very different Cuba than the one I saw three weeks ago. Cuba’s so disconnected while being connected to the rest of the world it makes a real interesting dichotomy.

For me, what I think a lot about is the view of Castro and Cuba is so different in Miami than the rest of the world and country as someone who has spent a significant amount of time in cities like San Francisco where there’s a different view of Castro and Che is how do we as a Cuban-American community relay the mixed emotions of this moment without it just seeming like blood lust. it’s complicated to people — how can we share our experience with the rest of the world where a lot of people might not get celebrating the death of a man. Those are the questions I ask myself.

I’m not happy any person died because that’s as awful as what Castro has done, but I’m happy for the symbolism and [end of] what he represents.”