Cuban-born Charlotte residents and others reacted with a mix of emotions on Saturday to the death of dictator Fidel Castro, with some saying the news brought them joy yet concern over the country’s future.
Charlotte restaurateur Belkis Plasencia doubts anything will change in her native land because of Castro’s death at age 90 on Friday.
While the dictator’s death might help some Cubans heal, she said, “I don’t think anything’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s going to do anything for the people of Cuba.”
Plasencia, 42, owns A Piece of Havana restaurant on South Tryon Street in the Steele Creek neighborhood. She is among the 1,361 Cubans living in Charlotte, according to a city of Charlotte immigrant survey in 2015.
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On social media, Charlotte-area residents said Castro had meant only harm to his people.
“How can anyone committed to human rights mourn Fidel Castro — a man who killed and repressed his own people?” a Davidson man asked. “Castro was a murdering thug. His revolution was primarily about keeping himself in power.”
“It’s a great day!” said a UNC Charlotte graduate in Fort Mill, S.C.
Plasencia left Cuba at age 24 to study international economics in Stockholm, Sweden, and came to the United States in 1999. Her mom was living in Boca Raton, Fla., but her dad, maternal grandmother and other close relatives are still in Cuba. Not until 2013 was Plasencia allowed to visit them, and she has been back six times in all.
Raúl Castro might seem like he’s opening the country to economic and political reform, she said, but don’t believe it. “I think he’s just playing along,” she said.
Raúl and other family members would have to die before the country changes economically and politically, she said. Still, a board outside the restaurant read, “Today Special: Cuba Libre.”
While she was happy “inside” at the news of Fidel Castro’s death, she said, Castro never faced punishment for what he did to his people and country. “He never faced an active judgment for what he did.”
For some Cuban Americans, even commenting for an article about the passing of Castro brought fear of retribution.
“It was this feeling of – finally,” said one 46-year-old Cuban-American woman from South Charlotte. She asked that her name not be used because she worries that having it attached to any comments critical of the Cuban government might affect her chances of being granted a visa to visit Cuba in the coming months or years.
She was born in Puerto Rico after her parents fled the Castro revolution in 1960, and says she’s always longed to see Cuba and walk the places where her parents, now in their 80s, lived as young people. But the idea of bringing her dollars to a place with such government oppression kept her away.
“Today I feel a little less conflicted,” she said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any major (immediate) political change because he’s dead. But it’s a sentimental thing. My parents outlived him.”
Church delegation now in Havana
On Saturday, a six-member team from St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte arrived in Cuba on a long-scheduled visit led by associate minister the Rev. Martha Kearse.
The Rev. Dennis Foust, the church’s senior minister, said he texted the delegation to urge them to stay alert in light of Castro’s death. But Baptist delegations from the U.S. to Cuba have never encountered any trouble in recent decades, he said.
The Charlotte group will worship on Sunday with members of two Cuba-based Baptist congregations, hold Bible studies in church members’ homes and exchange information on such topics as healthcare and issues affecting teens, Foust said.
Havana flight leaves Wednesday
By coincidence, American Airlines’ inaugural Charlotte-to-Havana flight is set for Wednesday. The flight on an Airbus 319 is scheduled to leave Charlotte Douglas International Airport at 8:50 a.m. and arrive in Havana at 11:18 a.m. All passengers must have a valid visa to take the flight.
In August, the Transportation Department finalized its selection of eight U.S. airlines to begin scheduled flights to Havana, including the daily nonstop, round-trip American Airlines flight from Charlotte.
For now, tourists won’t be allowed to fly to Cuba. Travelers must fall under one of a dozen authorized categories, including family visits, humanitarian missions and journalistic activity.
Staff writers Mark Price and Rick Rothacker contributed