“I came as a kid, thinking, well, this Castro is evil,” said a Seattle artist who emigrated from Cuba when he was 9. For many of the 8,800 people of Cuban descent living in Washington state, Saturday was a day to reflect on Fidel Castro’s reign.
Miami, the epicenter of Cuban-American life, erupted into celebration Saturday with the news that Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for nearly 50 years, had died overnight.
At the opposite corner of the country, home to far fewer people with ties to the island nation, some weren’t in the mood to take to the streets.
Juan Alonso-Rodriguez, a Seattle artist who emigrated from Cuba when he was 9, said he wasn’t rejoicing at Castro’s death. “I’ll leave my ‘celebrating’ for joyful, happy occasions,” he said.
Instead, Alonso-Rodriguez, 60, said he felt a sense of loss for what transpired during Castro’s rule, from how his family was severed, to how others were barred from leaving, and in many cases, risked their lives to do so anyway.
Alonso-Rodriguez is among the 8,800 people of Cuban descent the Census Bureau estimates live in Washington state.
His path to Seattle started in 1966, when he came to Miami in the care of an uncle. Alonso-Rodriguez’s mother died when he was young, and his father stayed behind with sisters and a grandmother who couldn’t leave.
“I came [to the U.S.] as a kid, thinking, well, this Castro is evil,” Alonso-Rodriguez said. His views softened a bit as he got older, he said, and he appreciated more of the history and other influences on Castro’s rule.
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“It may have started out with very good intentions,” he said of Castro’s rule. “But what happens when somebody has a taste of absolute power is those good intentions go by the wayside. That’s just human nature.”
Also among Seattle’s Cuban-American contingent is Ana Mari Cauce, University of Washington president.
Her family fled Cuba after Castro toppled the government of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, in which Cauce’s father, Vicente, had served as minister of education. Both parents took jobs in Miami shoe factories, hoping that Castro’s reign would be brief and they could return home.
“My father used to give us lessons on Cuban history, geography and culture,” she told Seattle Business magazine. “There was real pride in who we were and where we came from.”
She declined to comment to The Seattle Times on Saturday.
Jorge Enrique González Pacheco, a 47-year-old Cuban-born poet who lives in Seattle, spoke of a mixed reaction to Castro’s death among fellow expatriates and family in Cuba.
“Some people are happy, some are sad,” he said. For people with both views, “this is a huge moment.”
González Pacheco left Cuba in 2003 and moved in 2006 to Seattle, where he co-founded the Seattle Latino Film Festival.
He said he blames Castro’s policies for holding back Cuba’s economy, and limiting civil liberties. His death opens up an opportunity for brother Raúl Castro, who has led the country since 2008, to begin to change that.
“Cuba continues the oppression of dissidents. No democracy, no freedom of speech,” he said. “Fidel left a lot of work.”
Alonso-Rodriguez returned to Cuba after 45 years, for a 2011 visit, to get reacquainted with a sister, and meet nieces, nephews, and grandnieces and nephews he had never known.
Alonso-Rodriguez had gone by Alonso in the U.S., dropping his mother’s surname for simplicity’s sake. After his visit to Cuba, he started using his full name again.
“I need to honor my family,” he said.
He hopes the Donald Trump administration continues the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.
“When you’ve done something for over 50 years, and nothing has really worked and nothing has changed, it’s time to try a different approach,” Alonso-Rodriguez said.