[EDITOR’S NOTE: These heartfelt comments came to us from Ralph, a Cuban-American Tour Leader for Classic Journeys. You’ll note, as we did, that he never refers to Cuba’s late leader by name.]

Solemnity on one side, absolute jubilation on the other.

This was the scene on either side of the Florida Straits at the end of November. As a son of Cuban immigrants and a native Miamian, I couldn’t help but let out a momentary sigh of… well, relief.  It’s not as if I had lived a minute of the collective suffering experienced by a large portion of Cuban Exile Miami.  I didn’t live through the jarring struggle of a revolution or the disheartening process of nationalized properties. I also never felt what it was like to stand in lines at refugee assistance centers or the fear of uprooting the family and arriving in a foreign land with no understanding of its language.

Havana Skyline, Cuba

My sigh of relief was for those who spent a lifetime waiting for that moment, including those who died waiting for it.

It’s important to note that the celebratory tone on the Florida side could easily be dismissed by many as a macabre exercise performed by a heartless, enemy faction.  After all, a display of elation on the heels of a human being’s passing could easily be interpreted as inappropriate under most circumstances.  But such an assessment would be grossly oversimplifying matters.

Growing up in Miami was a lesson on waiting.  Most everything that a lot of people did–or proposed to do–was all contingent upon “him leaving,” whether by counter-revolution, coup d’état or death…

  1. The purchase of a new home in Miami?  Perhaps we should just wait until he’s gone. We have a perfectly good house over there. Surely we’ll get it back when this is all over.
  2. My parents and other family members are there.  Can we go back there and get them?  Maybe it’s best to wait until he’s gone. This will blow over soon enough.
  3. I noticed you have an old bottle of champagne in the cupboard.  Oh, that’s being saved for when he’s no longer there?  We’ll be popping that open any day now.  You’ll see…

That was during the first decade, or two, in exile.  Beyond that, the tune gradually changed and I lived it firsthand.

  • Someday you’ll see what a beautiful country we had to leave…  Someday, inevitably, he’ll be gone…
  • If I die before he’s gone, will you promise to leave my ashes there when he does go?
  • Let’s face it. He may live well over 100 years… After all this time, waiting for him to go is futile…

The waiting in Miami was a palpable and interminable reality—a wait that would last nearly six decades.  In the meantime, waves of refugees would continue arriving on Miami’s shores, some on treacherous journeys that would end in drowning.

Old-timers, on their perpetual wait, would see their American sons and daughters have American sons and daughters. Many couldn’t wait long enough to witness the wee-morning hours of November 26th, 2016. My parents and grandparents certainly didn’t make it.

Family in cuba.

The loss of a country, a way of life, is something that I cannot fully relate to, as I did not live through it at all. Thanks to my folks and their hard work, my sister and I wanted for nothing growing up. Those old-timers did their best, not just to fulfill the American Dream in their adopted nation, but also to recreate a small slice of the pre-revolutionary Cuba that they knew throughout pockets of Miami-Dade County…a Cuba of yesteryear that only exists in the hearts and minds of septuagenarians and octogenarians and each of them carries a scar of a deeply divided people.

There are no winners on either side.  In Cuba, just about everyone has an aunt, uncle, cousin or dad in Miami. The wounds of a severed citizenry are apparent upon broaching the subject of family with ordinary Cubans on the island.

When the announcement of his passing occurred just after midnight on November 26th, I was in Cuba with Classic Journeys. I was told by a Cuban tour guide whom I had befriended on an earlier trip there. She was, understandably, distraught. His figure as supreme leader was all she knew growing up. I gave her a compassionate hug, wished her well, and she drove off in her Soviet-era Lada.  I immediately thought to myself what a wonderful opportunity for reconciliation this can be; not just for the continued thawing between the US and Cuba, but for Miami and Havana, specifically.

As her car drove out of sight down Paseo Avenue in the Vedado neighborhood in Havana, I imagined the reaction to the news in Miami.

I sighed…

I knew their wait was over.

People driving in a convertible in Cuba.