Once Castro's gone, what then for exiles?

August 18, 2006

Miami Herald- Leonard Pitts

For some of us, Dec. 26 was the emptiest day of the year.

After weeks of anticipation, the calendar moving with glacial speed, the big day -- Christmas -- had finally arrived in a blaze of tinsel and plastic and wrapping paper. It was, for a child, the closest thing to paradise.

The day after dawned like an afterthought, as if the sun itself had a hangover. Dec. 26 always felt like the fairground after the fair, the ballroom after the ball. There was always a sense of confetti waiting for the push broom.

That's because anticipation had been shoved aside and reality had reasserted itself like a toothache. You awoke from your happy daze to an insistent question: Now what?

Something very similar will probably happen soon to the Cuban exile community. News broke at the end of July that Fidel Castro, needing surgery for a stomach disorder, had ceded power -- supposedly temporarily -- to his brother Raúl. News of the dictator's ill health prompted street parties in Miami.

Nearly three weeks later, Castro is said to be recovering. But in a statement to the nation this week, the dictator did little to quell the sense that his demise is near. He told his people to be optimistic, but warned them to brace for 'adverse' news. The recent headlines have fueled speculation that a day the exile community has awaited for decades, the day of Castro's death, may finally be at hand.

DECADES OF TORMENT

That day will be Christmas for many of those who lost relatives or years to his prisons, lost property to his government, lost their country to his grasp. They fled, many of them, to South Florida and built a community defined in large part by that loss, defined by the wait for redemption, the wait for a monster to die.

It is that definition that occasions these words. Maybe Castro dies next week, maybe he dies next year, maybe he dies before these words see print, but the one sure thing is that he dies. And when he dies, the exile community throws a party that makes Mardi Gras look like a church picnic.

And then what? What happens on the morning after? The question is not solely one of geopolitical pragmatism, though that's part of it.

As The Miami Herald recently reported, many in the exile community are grappling with renewed urgency with the practical questions Castro's death will raise. They are asking themselves what the role of the exile community should be in the new Cuba, whether members of the exile community will or should repatriate to the island, how the exile community can help bring investment to the country.

Important questions. But, again, there's a bigger question: Can there still be an exile community without exiles? When a people are defined by opposition to something, what happens when that something ends? Who will Cuban America be after Castro dies?

For so long, righteous hatred of this man has been the glue that held the community together: It has been a generational hand-me-down; a rationale for misguided attacks on free speech; a rationale for keeping Elián González away from his father; a litmus test for political hopefuls; a fuel for radio talk shows; a prism through which to view sports, politics, life; a reason for being.

SEISMIC CHANGE FOR EXILES

Castro's death may or may not change Cuba -- where is the evidence that his people will rise in revolution after he dies? -- but it will definitely bring seismic change to the exile community.

It holds out the potential for still deeper assimilation into the national mainstream and yet, paradoxically, also the potential for dislocation and loss of mission.

In a real sense, much of the exile community has depended on Castro for its sense of identity. No one can yet know what that identity will be once Castro dies.

Therein lies its promise and its challenge. The party will be nice. But the real story begins on the empty morning after.


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