The 'shadow' has been lifted: Miami's Cubans look to a post-Castro future

The death of Fidel Castro unleashed an explosion of emotion in Miami's Little Havana, where thousands of Cuban-Americans poured out into the streets to celebrate the 90-year-old former dictator's passing.

But if many first-generation exiles once thought Castro's death would bring about the end of his regime, they're not so sure now.

Because Castro ceded the presidency to his younger brother Raul eight years ago,"Fidel's death is paradoxical, ... it means nothing," said Pedro Freyre, who heads the international law practice at the Akerman law firm in Miami.

"But it means everything, because Fidel Castro was the essence, the icon that held that revolution together," said the 67-year old Cuban-born lawyer, who advises companies on doing business on the island and was part of the delegation that accompanied President Barack Obama to Havana last March for the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations.


Freyre said for Cuba's next generation of leaders, Castro's death could be the turning point that frees them to accelerate the opening of Cuba's economy, much the way Mao Zedong's death allowed a new generation of China's leaders to transform that nation's economy.

"Sometimes ... they flash their frustration at the process that things aren't going quicker," Freyre added. "(Fidel) will no longer be the shadow looking over their shoulder."

But second-generation Cuban-Americans in Miami's Little Havana are more skeptical about the possibility of economic opportunity expanding in Cuba in the wake of Castro's death.

"Cubans need to get together to get a strategy to change the Cuban system. But now, I don't think it's going to change," said Elio Esteban Mena, the owner of Old's Havana Cuban Bar and Cocina, who came to the U.S. from Cuba 12 years ago.

He worries that President-elect Donald Trump will reverse the return of American flights and cruises to Cuba, ushered in this year by the Obama administration. Trump warned on Monday that he may take a harder line with Havana and may roll back some of President Barack Obama's initiatives unless the Cuban people can get "a better deal."

"I think all the progress that we got from Obama, we're going to go back and it's going to be hard for the Cuban community," Mena said.

Cuban-Americans on the streets of Miami's Little Havana celebrate the death of Fidel Castro,  Nov. 27, 2016.
Rhona Wise | AFP | Getty Images
Cuban-Americans on the streets of Miami's Little Havana celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, Nov. 27, 2016.

But at a table at his restaurant, Janelle Gueits, a Cuban-American millennial said the opening under Obama came with no real guarantees to advance the rights of the Cuban people.

She'd like to see the U.S. press Havana to enact social reforms as a condition of continued economic co-operation She sees an opportunity for Trump administration to press Havana for greater social reform as a condition of continued economic co-operation.

"We need our business leaders to realize that commerce is not the only one of our values" that's important, said Gueits, a filmmaker whose grandfather was jailed for religious activities in Cuba under Castro. "We need people to engage, but do it responsibly."

This is a generation that grew up in the U.S. hearing stories of how their families lost everything when the Castro regime nationalized private businesses and seized the property of their parents and grandparents back in Cuba.

"The second generation, the third generation (of Cuban Americans) we understand what the rule of law is, what institutions are all about," said Evelio Medina, CEO of the Miami Brickell Chamber of Commerce, who is cautiously optimistic the Trump administration will push Cuba's new guard to accelerate economic reform.

"It's important to have a rule of law and a level playing field ... that gives us the opportunity to really do business," Medina said.

Freyre, meanwhile, says Cuba post-Castro is poised for significant change, and the potential for U.S. businesses is good.

"If you drop a seed in Cuba, agriculture flourishes," Freyre said. "If you drop the seed of capitalism, it will grow."

But for many, just as important is whether greater business ties with Cuba will propagate the seeds of freedom and human rights in Cuba.

Correction: Janelle Gueits was not a supporter of Donald Trump in the general election.