Cuban-Americans in N.J. cheer news of Castro’s death

Cuban-Americans gathered Saturday in communities throughout New Jersey to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, saying now is the time for the world to take steps to bring freedom to their homeland.

“It’s one step for the liberation of Cuba,” said Tony Romero, a Vineland businessman who owns Budget Muffler & Car Care Center on North Eighth Street. “(Fidel’s brother) Raul likes democracy. He likes the American dollars. It’s a good step for the freedom of Cuba.”

Romero, 60, was 10 when he left Cuba, arriving in New Jersey amid a wave of emigration, as Cubans sought to escape communism in their home country. Between 1960 and 1970, the state’s Cuban population grew until it was rivaled only by that of Miami.

This state’s Cuban population increased 7.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, reversing the decline of the past two decades, Census figures show.

Castro was a dictator and a criminal who took away the Cuban people’s culture and freedom, Romero said.

“A lot of damage was done in the last 50 years,” said Romero. “We have been waiting for this for 50 years.”

In 2014, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a new course in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Even though some Cubans refuse to return to their native land, Romero said he did visit Cuba during the past two years. He has cousins there who range in age from 8 to 36. He took them to a hotel, and they ate steak for the first time in their lives.

With the death of Fidel Castro, Cuba may become a better place to live, Romero said.

In Union City, Hudson County, a pharmacy had raised a large Cuban flag along with a sign stating, “The liberty bells are ringing. Long live Cuba libre.” A clock also had a sign reading “Fidel, your time has come,” and a man walking said “one less to worry about.”

The news of Castro’s death was long anticipated by the exiles who left after he took power. Rumors have come and gone for decades, and Castro’s death had become something of a joke. This time, though, it was real.

In April 1961, the U.S. backed a failed invasion of Castro’s Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs. In the wake of the Bay of Pigs, there was the so called “Peter Pan” program, which took Cuban children to places such as this country and Spain.

During this time, Paul Echaniz traveled alone though Jamaica to come to this country when he was 10. He lived with a cousin until his parents managed to leave Cuba. He was an engineer, who worked out of an office in Atlantic City from 1985 to 2007.

“My first reaction is to remember all the people who died during the years he was in power. My parents and my wife’s parents died,” Echaniz said. “All I remember is all the suffering he brought.”

The relationship between this country and Cuba should be liberalized, but not unconditionally, said Echaniz, who lives in New York City. The Cuban people should have freedom of speech, like we do in this country, he said

“This is about the people,” said Natalie Rodriguez, 19, of North Bergen, Hudson County. “There are people that say Castro is a revolutionary, but that’s not democracy over there.”

Rodriguez became emotional while discussing her grandparents’ struggle to leave Cuba to escape Castro’s regime.

“They had it hard, they had it very hard, but there were people that have had it worse, people that come in makeshift rafts. They were coming here for the dream,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, D-8th, who was 11 when his family fled Cuba, called on the international community to “seize the moment” and bring freedom to his homeland.

“Fidel Castro defiled democracy, oppressed innocent people and imprisoned a nation with his totalitarian tactics,” Sires said. “We must insist that all political prisoners are freed and that basic human rights are respected. The Cuban people deserve to live in a society where they have the freedom to access information, to organize, to worship and to speak what is on their mind without fear of being thrown into the gulags.”

Another Cuban-American lawmaker from New Jersey, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, said Castro’s “oppressive legacy will haunt the Cuban regime and our hemisphere forever.” But he said Castro’s death provided an opportunity to bring democracy to the communist-controlled island.

“Instead of condoning the continuation of repressive actions of a repressive regime simply because some believe it’s been long enough, the United States and the international community must stand up and support the Cuban people as they seek ways to implement changes that bring the fundamental principles of democracy,” said Menendez, a Democrat.

Menendez and Sires both strongly opposed President Barack Obama’s decision last year to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. They also have called for the return of Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted in 1977 in the death of state Trooper Werner Foerster during a gunfight on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973.

Chesimard was sentenced to life in prison but escaped and made her way to Cuba, where Castro granted her asylum and she has been living under the name Assata Shakur.