TAMPA — The phone calls and text messages began stirring Tampa’s Cuban-American community after midnight and never let up. One man’s phone buzzed with 49 texts.
Word came to Raul Villamia’s home in a text from his daughter, who told the 90-year-old that Fidel Castro had died.
And so a man who saw the birth of Castro’s Cuban revolution and even raised money for it witnessed the close of an era.
“Everything comes to an end, and this was Castro’s time to go,” said Villamia. “Many are celebrating. Many feel sorry for him.”
The death of the former Cuban president brought jubilation to the city’s community of Cuban exiles with dancing and cheering Saturday in the street near a West Tampa club, Casa de Cuba, that serves as a gathering place.
Theirs was a restrained response in comparison with the all-night revelry of Miami’s Little Havana. But many of Tampa’s immigrant families had left Cuba long before Castro rose to power. For them, it was less personal.
Some hope his death will herald an improvement of both personal and business ties between the United States and Cuba.
“This is something everyone has been waiting for — waiting for change, waiting for the dictator to be gone,” said Rafael Pizano, whose father, Roberto Pizano, spent 18 years in a Cuban prison and was tortured for his efforts to oust Fidel Castro. “But now he is dead. I want to see what will happen with Cuba now. Will it remain a dictatorship or will it transition to a democracy that respects the people and works for the people?”
Tampa has had a complicated relationship with the Cuban dictator from his earliest days. Almost 170,000 people of Cuban ancestry live within a two-hour drive of Tampa International Airport, a concentration second only to Miami and New York.
Castro visited Tampa exactly 61 years ago, spending five days and staying at the home of a Cuban native at 1614 14th Ave. His travels took him to cities with heavy Cuban-American populations to raise money to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Tampa figured prominently in the 1950s efforts by Castro supporters to run guns to the guerillas fighting Batista.
The news on Jan. 1, 1959, that Castro’s revolution had ousted Batista was greeted with unrestrained joy in Ybor City and West Tampa. Drivers blared horns and waved Cuban flags with cries of “Cuba Libre!”
That joy would in the coming years turn to despair after it became clear to many that Castro’s turn to communism marked the replacement of one repressive dictator with another.
But on Saturday, the cheers returned.
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Members of the Cuban exile community typically gather at Casa de Cuba on weekends to play dominoes and talk politics. This time, the dominoes were set aside.
A dozen exiles stood on a nearby street corner, waving Cuban flags, dancing and calling out as passing motorists beeped their horns. When a black Range Rover drove by, its passenger draping a Cuban flag out the window, 67-year-old Bernardino Perez leapt into the air.
“He’s dead!” he shouted, running his hand across his throat.
“We had so many years of fear and hatred,” said Perez, who left the island more than 30 years ago. “His influence destroyed Cuba, America, the world.”
Roberto Pizano, 78, said he learned the news by telephone about 11:30 p.m. Friday, even before the official announcement from Raúl Castro. Afterward, Pizano slept little. “Too many people calling me,” he said in Spanish.
Pizano, the ex-political prisoner, expects the regime to topple without its figurehead. “Raúl Castro without Fidel Castro is nobody,” he said. “Without Fidel Castro, they are going to fight among themselves for power. The system is going to collapse.”
He got teary reflecting on the changes to come. “For all Cubans,” he said, “this is a day of celebration and happiness.”
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Anti-embargo activist Al Fox notes that many in Cuba are mourning Castro’s death.
“You’ll notice nobody is dancing in the streets in Havana,” said Fox. “He is revered in Cuba.”
Fox created the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. He has met with Castro nine times. He expects little to change in the battle of rhetoric between Cuba and its expatriates.
“This has now taken on a life of its own,” he said. “This will go on for the next 100 years.”
Ralph Fernandez, the Tampa lawyer who got 49 text messages about Castro, has been a longtime spokesman for Tampa’s dissident community. He said substantive political change may now finally be possible in Cuba.
Castro, even retired, had remained a powerful symbol of the Cuban Revolution.
“Even in his bathrobe, he still commanded fear and a level of respect,” Fernandez said. “It was Fidel and his revolution. And now he is gone — hopefully to be with Stalin and Hitler — and if there is hell, I think he is going to be the primary resident for a long time.”
Franco Silva, a local radio personality who hosts Latino 54 on WMNF-FM, viewed the celebration Saturday in Miami. He said many are still angry Castro died without punishment.
“I overheard people saying that he should have been shot and tortured,” Silva said, “and that it was a shame he got to die with his shoes off in bed.”