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Cuban exiles express bittersweet celebration about Castro's illness

MIAMI—For so long, Cuban exiles played it out as a fantasy with all the fireworks: Fidel Castro would be dead, Cuba would be free and the champagne corks would fly as celebrations raged in Miami and on the island.

Reality on Tuesday proved a letdown for many. While crowds of exiles banged pots and honked car horns in Miami's Cuban enclaves late Monday and early Tuesday after news broke that Castro had ceded power as he underwent surgery, by later Tuesday the reaction had become restrained and disillusioned, even before word was out that Castro apparently had survived.

Streets where hundreds had danced the night before were back to normal. Exiles went to work. Cuban radio stations returned to regular programming. There was a sense of expectancy, but for many, no elation.

"It feels like when I was a kid and used to lean over the edge of tall buildings just to get that sinking feeling in my stomach," said Rafael Lima, a University of Miami professor of filmmaking who left Cuba when he was 9. "It feels like we're on the edge of something, that we can't go back from here. But it feels like a false ending. It's something I tell my screenwriting students not to do. It feels like we just stumbled to the end."

Exiles may have spent 47 years dreaming of cathartic celebrations. But for every flag waver and rumba stepper on Miami's streets Monday night, there seemed to be dozens more who spoke in flat tones, emotions on ice as they waited for true confirmation of Castro's end.

"When you know you are dealing with a regime that manipulates information, it simply puts you on slippery emotional territory," Cuban radio personality Julio Estorino said. "A lot of people who would be screaming for joy instead are forced to contain themselves."

Many exiles expressed surprise that instead of happiness or relief, they felt anxiety and frustration.

"It's twisted," said Cuban-American filmmaker Joe Cardona, 38. "After all those years of waiting for the news, it's kind of hollow. It's like going to sleep with a lump in your throat that you can't exactly explain."

Said Eddy Arango, 67, a retired lawyer and a political prisoner in the early days of Castro's revolution: "I won't allow myself to feel anything because Castro has proven so Machiavellian for so long that we don't know what to believe as truth. He could already be dead. He could be perfectly healthy and this could be strategy to see how news of his death would unfold. It's all speculation, as it always has been with Cuba."

Cuban-American psychologist Luly Casares said she expected the moment of uncertainty to have a lingering effect on some exiles.

"It's extremely disappointing," Casares said. "Every Cuban we know had a fantasy about the day Fidel died, a fantasy about Cuba being free, a fantasy about going back home. You live on fantasy, because fantasy gives you hope. But fantasies are always going to be bigger than reality. Now reality has hit and we realize even if he is dead, things won't change as we envisioned. And hope turns into a sense of sadness and loss."

Even without confirmation that Castro's days are numbered, some refused to keep waiting before they gave in to celebrations.

"Tonight my wife and I are planning to have lobster and champagne while we listen to Willy Chirino," said Gustavo Perez-Firmat, a Columbia University professor of Cuban literature who's written several books on the Cuban exile experience.

The celebration will be bittersweet.

"We have been waiting for this moment for 47 years, and I'm ready," he said. "But the truth is, the celebration is too late for me because I want to talk to my father and my uncles about it but they are all dead. What I have left is sadness."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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