For Cuban exiles, painful memories mix with relief at Castro's death

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tom Tracy

By Ana Rodriguez-Soto

(CNS) — While many celebrated loudly on the streets, the death of Fidel Castro
triggered a more subdued reaction among the Cuban exiles who attended the noon
Mass Nov. 26 at the National Shrine of Our Lady Charity.

is a day like any other,” Luis Gutierrez told the Florida Catholic, Miami’s archdiocesan
newspaper. “The fact that ‘el caballo’ has died means nothing.”

used the Cuban slang — “caballo,” or horse — for Castro, whose death had been
announced earlier that morning. The 90-year-old reportedly died late at night
Nov. 25. But his 57-year-old regime continues to rule Cuba, with his younger
brother, Raul Castro, now at the helm.

is why, despite the joy on the streets of Little Havana, Westchester and Hialeah,
the death of Fidel Castro in 2016 means much less than it would have in 1976 or
even 2006. An oppressive regime still shackles basic freedoms on the island,
keeping a stranglehold on a beleaguered economy.

1976, Cuba’s Communist Party approved a new socialist constitution and Fidel
was elected president. Before that, starting in 1959, he was prime minister
following the successful revolution he led to overturn the Batista regime. In
2006, while he underwent intestinal surgery, Fidel temporarily turned over
power to younger brother Raul. He resigned in 2008 and Cuba’s National Assembly
named Raul the new president. Raul, now 85, was re-elected in 2013.

been out of it for 10 years. It’s his brother and the clique that surrounds
him,” said Gutierrez, noting that he has been coming to noon Mass at the shrine
every Saturday for decades.

brought me,” he said, referring to Cuba’s beloved patroness, Our Lady of

is not exaggerating. He is the man who, at age 22, smuggled her image into
Miami on her feast day, Sept. 8, 1961. Nearly 10,000 exiles welcomed her that
night during an emotional Mass at Bobby Maduro Stadium, which has since been torn

presence provided a spiritual boost to the early exiles and ultimately resulted
in the construction of the shrine — known as La Ermita — along Biscayne Bay.
It remains a beacon of Cuban faith and patriotism, and also a place where
exiles and immigrants from all the nations of Latin America come to give thanks
or seek Mary’s intercession.

pray the rosary every day,” Gutierrez said, adding that his prayers that day
remained the same. “I pray for my family and for freedom in Cuba.”

feelings were echoed by Marizol and Alfredo Mendez, who also come to the shrine
every Saturday, out of devotion to Mary and to spend some time “in peace,” as
he put it.

a relief, a new dawn,” said Alfredo of Castro’s passing.

and Marizol left Cuba for Spain and arrived in the U.S. five years later, in
1978. They have never gone back.

for Fidel’s death, Marizol noted, “We got rid of the horse but the saddle

the Mendezes and all the others celebrating on the streets or marking the day
quietly at home, Castro’s death caused memories to surface: of lives
interrupted or ended, of courage and sacrifices made, of parents and
grandparents who longed to see this day but died before doing so.

Mendez recalled the violent, early days of Castro’s revolution, when priests
and religious were persecuted. He personally sheltered one of them: Father
Feliciano del Vals of the church of San Juan de Letran in Havana’s El Vedado

priest was among thousands arrested in the days prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, a failed effort backed by the
United States, Mendez said, and held for two weeks in miserable conditions at the
Blanquita Theater in Havana. After the invasion, the priest found refuge for 40
days with Mendez’s family.

a futile search for asylum in a foreign embassy, he was rearrested, put on a
ship, the Covadonga, and sent into exile in Spain with more than 100 other
priests — including Miami Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, the shrine’s longtime
rector, who died in 2012.

followed that bus the whole way,” Mendez said, referring to the exiled priests.
Then, with resignation in his voice, “We have to keep waiting.”

those memories, that pain, that hurt, that Father Fernando Heria, the shrine’s
newly appointed rector, spoke of during his homily at the Mass. His uncle was
killed by a Castro firing squad Sept. 16, 1961.

is not a typical Saturday,” Father Heria said. “It’s not that we rejoice at the
death of any human being, because that would be a sin. But it’s that, on this
day, we want to turn over to God the pain we have carried around for more than
57 years.”

have to begin to heal,” Father Heria continued. “We have to go to the Almighty
and turn all our pain over to him. Be not afraid to tell the Lord, I have a
pain that only you can take away.”

Heria also spoke about the need for unity among the Cuban people, reminding
them that Our Lady of Charity was “the first Cuban ‘balsera’ (rafter).”

forget,” he added. “Charity unites us. The maternal love of the daughter of
God, of the wife of God, of the Mother of God, unites us.”

that sense, said Carlos Perez, Castro’s passing is cause for hope, if not joy.

was an obstacle to reconciliation among Cubans. He sowed distrust among Cubans.
He sowed the separation of families,” said Perez, who left Cuba 20 years ago,
at the age of 43. His father left the island when Carlos was 11 and died in the
U.S. The two never saw each other again.

spent 17 years in Chile and Bolivia — where he met his wife — before coming
to Miami eight months ago. The move here allowed him to reconnect with his

it was as if nothing had happened. I received the same tenderness as always,
the same love as always,” he said.

that evening, Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski celebrated the 8 p.m. Mass at
the shrine. In his homily, he echoed the words in the statement he had issued
earlier that day, when the news of Castro’s death first broke.

death of Fidel provokes many emotions — both in and outside the island.
Nevertheless, beyond all possible emotions, the passing of this figure should
lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity, asking her for
peace for Cuba and its people,” the archbishop said. “May our holy Lady of
Charity listen to her people and hasten for Cuba the hour of its reconciliation
in truth, accompanied by freedom and justice.”

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is editor of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.

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