Thousands of Cubans throughout Miami-Dade and elsewhere celebrated the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Saturday, some between study sessions at Florida International University.
Students at the college’s main campus near Sweetwater are preparing for upcoming final exams and projects, but some said they were distracted by the news of the longtime dictator’s death.
“I am glad in a way, but sad that I am happy that someone died. It had to be done. It was his time,” said psychology student Marianela Padron, who migrated from Cuba six years ago.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Cubans fled to the United States to escape Castro’s regime. Hundreds of thousands more came during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In addition, a recent Obama Administration policy change created a spike in immigrants, with over 8,000 Cubans coming to the Miami area during the first 10 months of this year, according to the Pew Research Center.
The students said they came to the U.S. to avoid being subjected to communist rule.
Padron said her Italian grandparents migrated to Cuba pre-Castro, where her grandfather started his own shoemaking business. It was taken when Castro took power.
“He went from being able to take care of his family and friends to drinking just sugar and water,” Padron said. “The government took everything.”
When news broke of the death, many in the Cuban community took to the streets with flags, dancing, chanting, and beating on pot and pans.
Cuban immigrant Grisel Pantoja, another FIU student, said her mother woke her up in the early morning, urging her to join the celebration on the streets of Hialeah.
“I feel happy for my family back home,” she said. “The fact that people are able go on the streets can express themselves is a freedom they lack in Cuba. The people are oppressed.”
Pantoja said her 100-year-old grandfather has told her stories of pre-Castro Cuba and its booming economy. The island is much different today, she said.
“The people are poor, they have to sell food on the black market in order to survive,” said Pantoja. “The government made the rules as they went along, none of it was written.”
Despite the economic woes, Cuba leads the way in education. The country spends almost 13 percent of its budget on education, according to World Bank Group.
Pantoja and Padron both said even though education looks free to outsiders, it comes with a price.
“We would go to school in morning, but in the evening we were forced to do agriculture,” said Pantoja.
Students in Cuba aren’t at liberty to chose their fields of study. They are provided with list of options based only on their performance in school, according to the Cuban students.
Padron said she is happy for her new life in Miami where she can study what interests her, and is hoping for new Cuba.
“Things won’t get better as yet, but it’s the beginning,” she said. “I came here in May. I cried on the Fourth of July because that’s when I realized that I was free.”