Mijail Barzaga, 49, spent more than seven years in various Cuban prisons as one of 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown called Black Spring.
On Saturday Barzaga, a former journalist, joined members of the local Cuban community at Café Piquet to celebrate the death of the man behind his imprisonment: Fidel Castro.
“Cuba libre,” Barzaga chanted as a Cuban flag waved behind him in the restaurant’s patio.
Revelers at the popular gathering space for local Cubans expressed a mix of joy and sadness when speaking about the former leader’s death, though the sadness was hardly meant in mourning.
“If only he died 10 years ago, before his brother Raul took over. Then there could have been change,” Barzaga said with a deep sigh.
Nelly Piquet, the restaurant’s owner, said she left Cuba at the age of 12 in 1962 and recalls how her father would call Castro a joke on the country. She said that while she felt it was about time for the dictator to die, she wouldn’t truly celebrate until the Cuban people acquired their civil and human rights.
Piquet also lamented that her husband and original restaurant co-owner, Guido, was unable to witness the news. She said he had been on one of the last airlifts out of the island country during the Cuban missile crisis. Friday was his 10 year death anniversary — the same date as Castro’s death.
“Guido would have been partying all day out of happiness,” Piquet said wiping away tears.
Jorge Ferragut, executive director of Casa Cuba (Cuba House), a Houston-based social organization with strong anti-Castro sentiments, sipped on lemonade in the restaurant’s patio with a smile on his face.
He shared greater confidence in what Castro’s death means for the future of Cuba.
“We don’t celebrate the death of a human being, but we do celebrate in the name of his victims,” Ferragut said. “This is the first step for the liberation of Cuba. The snake’s head has been severed.”
Ferragut, 69, who said he left Cuba with family in 1979 after his children started facing discrimination from teachers for being Catholic, said he hasn’t contacted relatives still in Cuba about the news. Once he does, he would need to be careful and speak in code with them to ensure they face no legal repercussions for speaking in favor of Castro’s end.
At the makeshift party at Café Piquet’s patio, Barzaga snapped photos on his point and shoot camera of friends singing along to Cuban songs. But he could only muster a half smile.
With Raul Castro now leading the country without his older brother in the background, Barzaga ponders the possibility of violent backlashes against the government.
“There were always some people who loved Fidel and still do, but no one loves Raul,” he said.