Cuban expatriates celebrate Castro’s death, but acknowledge his legacy

UNION CITY, N.J. — In the early 1950s, when he was still a guerrilla leader fighting against the capitalist dictator Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro visited the Cuban community in this North Jersey town to raise money for what Castro then called a democratic revolution. At the end of the decade, when he rose to power in Cuba, it soon became clear that the revolution was anything but democratic.

It left people like members of the Lan Family, who had helped in the revolution but later fled to North Jersey, disillusioned. Their assistance to Castro's cause was repaid with oppression.

"I'm very happy," said the matriarch of the family, whom everyone calls Madre. "I have waited for 57 years for this year," when Fidel Castro died.

Her son, Mario Lan, explained further, since his mother's English speaking ability is not as great as her Spanish. "She risked her life to help for Fidel Castro's revolution, smuggling medicines" to the rebel troops, Lan said about his mother. "Her brother was involved in the revolution."

The family was having a celebratory dinner at El Artesano, a well-known Cuban restaurant and gathering place for the Cuban-American exile community.

After toasting the demise of Fidel Castro, Lan's sister, Ivette Lan-Ayers, said, "It's a happy day for everybody. We thought about this day for years. Sometimes you feel guilty because you're here and [your family is still in Cuba]. There's hope for them."

Lan-Ayers and her family fled Cuba when she was six years old and her brother was seven. They're now in their forties, and like many families that left Cuba in the late 1950's and early 1960's, as well as in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, they settled either in North Jersey or Southern Florida.

New Jersey's senior U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is the son of Cuban immigrants and is the former mayor of Union City.

At a noon news conference on Saturday, Menendez openly criticized Fidel Castro's brother, Raul, who now runs the island nation.

The news conference was held at the meeting hall of the Union of Ex-Political Prisoners here. The walls of the organization's headquarters are lined with photos of prisoners the Castro brothers jailed.

Eduardo Ochoa, 87, was one of them. He was imprisoned for three years for speaking out for democracy in Cuba. He later fled to the U.S.

"Sad," is how he described his reaction to Castro's passing, "because what's left is a dynasty." He said he saw little cause for optimism, since Raul Castro and other members of Castro's family will most likely remain in the Cuban government.

His sobering reaction, however, contrasts with those of many of his fellow expatriates. One woman, wearing a baseball cap with the name "Cuba" emblazoned on it over a Cuban flag, explained why she was hoarse, while eating dinner at El Artesano.

"Celebrating too much," she said, had resulted in laryngitis.

Meanwhile, at a nearby table, the Lan Family was raising glasses with the toast "Viva Cuba Libre," or long live Free Cuba.

They acknowledged that Castro had brought some positive change to their home country. However, said Mario Lan, "[he] brought literacy and health care, but with no freedoms of speech, freedom of assembly and no human rights."