Local Cuban-Americans react to Fidel Castro's death

Posted at 6:27 PM, Nov 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-28 15:11:13-05

"From miles and miles in each direction, there were people in their cars with Cuban flags, windows down, people honking their horn, coming from every direction," said David Lefkowitz over the phone. He was describing the scene at Miami, Florida's neighborhood, Little Havana, where thousands of Cubans gathered to celebrate Fidel Castro's death. "There was a palpable hope that Fidel's death was the fall of another domino towards the liberation and true progression of Cuba."

Miles away, here in Buffalo, it's a day Cuban-Americans hoped would come soon enough.

"At first it was soothing, then it was, believe it or not, exhilarating," said Santiago, Cuba native, Alicia Granto-Estenoz, describing her initial reactions when she heard about Castro's death. "Then, the next minute, I was crying my head off, thinking of my parents and the thousands that were shot."

Granto-Estenoz left the island at the young age of 14, as part of Operation Peter Pan, where more than 14,000 children were sent from Cuba to the United States, unaccompanied in the early 1960's.

"It was hell because it was a very uncertain period," said Granto-Estenoz. "I would wake up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning every single night, not knowing if I would ever be reunited with my parents again." She added that about two years later, her parents were able to flee Cuba, flying to Mexico, and crossing to the United States that way, thanks to a family friend.

Those same years, Olga Karman was also traveling to the United States from Cuba. This came just months after she says the island had hope Castro's rise would bring positive change to the island.

"He was the most formidable speaker," said Karman, from Havana, Cuba. "Because there had been decades of pathetic dictators who had no ideology... nothing!"

While sitting in her home, surrounded by photographs that remind her of Cuba, Karman says the previous leaders, like Fulgencio Batista, brought negativity to the island, so Castro brought some hope when he first rose to power.

"He tortured people, there were dead people that appeared hanging from lamp posts," Karman remembered. "It was your typical horrific Latin America dictatorship, and may we never live such a day in this country."

She's gone back to Cuba a couple of times.

"It was falling down... falling down," Karman said. "People were hopeless."

But now, that hope has risen.

"I keep hopeful," said Granto-Estenoz. "It's one more step towards freedom of speech, and I think that's what most of us, if not all of us, want."

"What I want is what I wanted then," said Karman. "I would like them to have what I had and what they didn't. But not at the price of lack of freedom, of hunger on the streets."