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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 February 2008, 12:08 GMT
Exiles dream as Castro departs
As Cuban expats in Miami's Little Havana ponder the departure of Fidel Castro, Kevin Connolly is reminded of the exiles from the Soviet era who watched the disintegration of communism more than a decade ago.

Cuban exiles in Miami
Cuban exiles in Miami's Little Havana celebrate Castro's exit

It was around midday and, for some Miami Cubans, time for another hotdog-sized cigar, washed down with another gritty, rasping coffee.

Cigar smoke curled itself into elegant scrollwork and hung in the limpid air around us. If the atmosphere had been any more humid there would have been condensation on the outsides of the buildings.

The roadways of Miami's Little Havana district ran backwards and forwards across 8th Street like the electrical wiring under a chafing-dish.

Exiles' gossip

A layer of low cloud sat like a lid above us and in-between the hot, smoky air boiled with gossip and speculation.

Miami's exiled Cubans were gathering to discuss the news that Fidel Castro was handing over the reins of power, probably to his younger brother Raul, a sprightly 76-year-old.

Beside me, two old men carried on an argument prompted by a journalist's questions about their reaction.

Castro's death.....is like the death of communism in Cuba itself
Cuban exile in Miami

One wanted to see Castro die immediately, the other hoped to see him linger on in hopeless agony for, say, two or three years.

Castro's death, says one of them, is like the death of communism in Cuba itself - you know it must happen but you don't know when it will happen.

Beyond them, an elderly man holding a hastily-scrawled placard performed a heavy-footed soft shoe shuffle and waved to television crews and passing motorists.

Tux and tap shoes

I heard two young American reporters discussing whether or not it is legitimate to speak of "dancing in the streets" when all the dancing is being done by just one person.

Miami and Cuba

Something about the way the old man had dressed - in a white tux and tap shoes - told me that he did not require much encouragement from events in the news to express himself through music and movement, but I did not join in the debate on editorial ethics.

In truth my mind was elsewhere, remembering other countries where I sat and drank coffee with old men and women, as they waited for communist regimes to collapse and wondered sadly if they would manage to outlive them.

When I was based in Moscow I knew an old woman, born just a few years after the October Revolution, who used to sell mushrooms from a little stand not far from my house.

She burned with an unquenchable hatred for the communist system and especially for a man called Lazar Kaganovich, a spiteful old psychopath who was the last of Stalin's immediate circle of cronies left alive.

It would be fair to say that she hoped to outlive the communist system but was absolutely determined to outlive old Iron Lazar.

Death-wish

Well, the Soviet Union disintegrated in the end - in the middle of August 1991 - and so we bade farewell to a system which was capable of putting a communications satellite into orbit on-demand, but which required about 20 years notice if you wanted it to install a domestic telephone line.

Raul Castro
Fidel Castro is expected to be succeeded by his brother Raul

In the end, both Kaganovich and my mushroom seller got what they would have wanted.

He died in July 1991, a month before the final collapse of the system in whose service he murdered so many of his fellow countrymen. She died in September of the same year.

He never lived to see communism's crowning moment of humiliation and she did. But she did not have to live through the years of disillusioning chaos which followed.

Smoke and speculation

I wandered away from my argumentative little crowd in search of a break from the smoke and the speculation and found a little gallery selling black and white photographs of Old Havana.

A woman passes a wall in Havana
The old Cuba they knew - the pre-revolutionary island of gin cocktails and gangsterism and rural poverty - has gone forever

They were rich in a kind of forlorn romance. They recorded a city of sweeping, and recently swept, boulevards with chromium grins on the radiator grilles of wallowing American limos and sparkling windows on apartment blocks that reached up to the sky, well out of reach of the poor.

One image - of a carnival parade passing through the soft darkness of an early evening in Havana in 1957 - had an almost unbearable poignancy to it.

Perhaps it was just the air of concentration about the young dancers as they pirouetted through the shot, but I think it was more a sense that none of them knew then what all of us know now.

Uncertain future

The carnival-goers - who had grown up under one blood-stained bungler in Fulgencio Batista - were just a few years away from exchanging him for something just as bad in Fidel Castro.

I wonder how many of the dancers survived the transition and how many did not.

When I was ready again for the heat and noise of the street, I found the same group of old Cuban exiles, still apparently at the same point in the same argument.

All believe the end is now in sight for Castro, although not all believe it will come quickly.

And still they worry. The old Cuba they knew - the pre-revolutionary island of gin cocktails and gangsterism and rural poverty - has gone forever.

They worry about what type of place the island will become, and what place there will be in it for them.

And, of course, like other exiles from communism before them - Russians, Poles, Czechs and Hungarians - they wait in uncertain hope, calculating the years it might take before there is real change in the old country, against the years they might have left themselves.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 23 February, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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