At midnight they began to pour on to the streets of Little Havana, generations of Cuban Americans bashing metal pots, blasting car horns and waving Cuban and American flags through the night as they celebrated the death of the man they knew as el monstruo – the monster.
By daybreak, the popping champagne corks had mostly given way to strongcafecitos, but the moods of jubilation remained all along Calle Ocho and elsewhere in Miami, home to almost a million Cubans.
From Cafe Versailles, the popular Cuban restaurant and bakery, to Maximo Gomez park further east, where the first waves of exiles from Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution still gather daily to play dominoes, there was the inescapable feeling that the page had finally turned on a dark chapter of history.
“This day, for me, is the most beautiful day of my life, the most happy day,” said Felix Puentes, a Little Havana resident who spent six years as a political prisoner in Cuba before finally escaping to the United States more than a decade ago.
“I lost years of my life in Cuba. This is such a happy day.”
Puentes’ delight was widely shared as numbers swelled into the thousands by Saturday’s early morning hours. Wafts of smoke from Cuban cigars mingled with the spray of champagne from bottles with labels marked “not to be opened until the death of Fidel Castro”.
Another large crowd gathered at La Carreta restaurant, a prominent Cuban American restaurant and hangout further along Calle Ocho, where police closed off the road as celebrating residents paraded a giant Cuban flag along the middle of the street.
Felipe Morales, a first-generation exile who came to Miami from Havana in the 1960s, captured the mood of many: “Castro is a monster, but now he’s dead, and to us this is the beginning of a new Cuba,” he said. “When you have a leader, and that leader disappears, cracks appear in the system.
“I was 19 years old, I remember the confiscation of properties, the abuses, the freedoms we lost, the democracy we lost, the human beings we lost, people put in jail for political reasons.”
Younger generations of Cuban Americans were also celebrating. Nick Romero, who was born in the US, was photographing the crowds.
“This is a special day for all of us. My grandparents came over here with my aunt and my uncle and my mum at three years old,” he said. “I wish my grandparents would be able to see this, especially my grandfather.
“I woke up in tears this morning when I learned that Fidel had passed on. My grandfather was a really hard worker and had just about everything taken away from him. He was on top of the world and they just took everything from him. My family decided to risk their lives and they came to Miami to start over. That says what an impact Fidel had.”
The city’s Cuban American political leaders were also quick to weigh in on what Fidel Castro’s death meant to the community.
“For a lot of people of my generation, it reminds them of their grandparents, maybe even their parents,” said Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and former presidential candidate.
“The day those parents and grandparents really wanted to see was not the death of Fidel Castro, though that certainly would have been a part of it. What they wanted to see was liberty and freedom in Cuba.
Starting to be a real crowd outside Versailles in Little Havana, cars stopping to honk and cheer “Cuba Libre!” (And “el viejo murió!”) pic.twitter.com/pzBvC4fdNV
“And while the dictator is dead, the dictatorship remains. It’s a day to reflect literally on the tens of thousands of people whose lives were forever altered by the rise of Fidel Castro to power. People who were executed after kangaroo trials, people who lost 30 years in prison, the over 1.5 to 2 million people who had to flee their own country.”
Miami’s US congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Havana and immigrated to Florida with her family aged seven, was even more forthright.
“The day that the people, both inside the island and out, have waited for has arrived. A tyrant is dead and a new beginning can dawn on the last remaining communist bastion of the western hemisphere,” she said in a statement.
“Those who still rule Cuba with an iron grip may attempt to delay the island’s liberation, but they cannot stop it.
“Fidel apologists around the world can help to restore freedom and human rights for Cuba by joining the call for the new regime to free the hundreds of freedom fighters and pro-democracy activists still locked in Castro’s prisons.”
Analysts of Cuban-American affairs said that while Castro’s death was a symbolic moment of history, its effect on the community would be negligible.
“Fidel is long dead in many ways in terms of policy,” said Guillermo Grenier, a Havana-born professor of sociology at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute.
“He has not been an active player and as a matter of fact has watched things occur that he did not support, a dismantling of the Cuban society that he helped build.
“It’s a historic moment but also one that’s anticlimactic in many ways. In the long run it won’t have an impact on the community per se, except that it shows division. There’s almost a million Cubans in Miami and if you see a few thousand on the streets, you’ll be seeing a lot.”