WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — He lived a life whose end sparked not grief, but jubilation; joy, not sadness for many Cuban exiles. A death celebrated, not mourned, by many of those who lived and breathed the exile experience at his hands. The joy ignited by Fidel Castro’s long-anticipated death swept across South Florida with force Saturday.

But with the joy, Castro’s death at 90, after a decade of failing health and decline, also propelled South Florida’s Cuban community, young and old, through a spectrum of emotions. There were sighs of relief. Anger and hostility. The old guard of Cuban exiles, the first to emigrate under Castro’s rule, vented seething resentment. Others were somber with reflection. There was hope, tempered by skepticism, that Castro’s passing would at long last usher positive change for the island nation.

But the strongest initial urge, without a doubt, was to dance, figuratively, on Castro’s grave. “In Cuba, everyone is drunk,” said Santiago Portal, 84, who immigrated to Miami half a century ago. “And here in Miami, there will be many days of celebration.”

Portal wore an ivory suit with a matching bow tie – a special outfit for the occasion. “Eternal life does not exist,” he said. “This is the first step to a liberated Cuba.”

Empty champagne bottles and corks lined the sidewalks of Eighth Street, famously known as Calle Ocho, near the Versailles restaurant, a hub of the South Florida Cuban exile community. Celebrations continued through Saturday afternoon as hundreds spilled onto the streets. Horns blared, chants and the clickety-clank of pots and pans rang out during absolute jubilation.

A woman wearing a “Free Cuba” shirt and waving a matching flag raised her arms skyward and said, “Thank God that the assassin has died!” Idelisa Rubio’s eyes sparkled with joy as she spoke of learning the news of Castro’s death at 6 a.m.

“I haven’t been able to sleep since then, giving God thanks,” Rubio, 73, said. “I have three siblings who still live in Cuba and I suffer for them. It’s too sad – he’s been worse than Hitler.”

Voices chanted for the demise of Castro’s brother, Raul, too: “Falta uno! Falta uno!” meaning “One more left! One more left!”

Vladimir Putin and the pope memorialized Castro with words of remembrance and respect, but many South Floridians made no attempts to temper their reactions. They called him a thug, a despot, a criminal, a tormentor, the face of pure evil. They rejoiced to finally say: “Good riddance!”


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