By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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As midnight approached this past Monday, Radio Mambí host Ninoska Pérez Castellón cautioned against speculation of Fidel Castro's death. But on Calle Ocho, no one seemed to be listening. Block after block teemed with revelers waving Cuban flags, leaning on car horns, dancing on SUV roofs. From the sidewalks, onlookers threw victory signs. Some pulled their index fingers across their throats in macabre exultation.
Inching its way westward, an impromptu parade found its epicenter outside Versailles, the famed restaurant on SW Eighth Street. Ramón Lago, who left Cuba in 1962, summed up the exuberance tinged with uncertainty. "All of a sudden we have a homeland," he said and then paused. "Uh, the possibility of a homeland."
A few teenage boys jogged around in orange life jackets. They held a cardboard raft spray-painted with the words Llegamos si viva Cuba. (We're coming if Cuba lives.) People took turns punching an effigy of Castro a skull mask with a cigar in its mouth.
Gathered around a white Jeep Wrangler with its top down and a small generator hooked up to its engine, hundreds of people shouted anti-Castro slogans and sang along with music blasting from a muscled-up stereo. "Nicaragua, libre," they shouted. "Colombia, libre. Czechoslovakia, libre. Romania, libre. Alemania, libre. Cuba, libre!" at which the crowd exploded into frenzied screaming and jumping.
At the Purdy Lounge in South Beach a few minutes later, Sherri Bell, a nonprofit organizer dolled up in a backless rayon dress, rejected a suggestion to head for Little Havana. "You want to go there?" she asked. "Look, Calle Ocho is gridlocked and you'll have to find parking...."
The next morning at 11:00 a.m., María Magdalena Valdés and Juan Graverán stood in the shade of an awning at Versailles and watched the television anchors sweating through their suits and the mayor of Miami's minions arranging interviews and kissing cheeks.
She is 71 years old; he is 70. They are both from Pinar del Río and wanted to celebrate. "We have been in this situation two or three times before," said Graverán, pushing up his bifocals, his voice as flat as freshly poured concrete. "We have to wait and see if he is actually dead. There was the Maleconazo, in 1994...."
"August 5," interjected Valdés, nodding. She wore a T-shirt bearing a Cuban flag, and a tiny rhinestone American flag pin clung just above her heart.
"August 5," Graverán gravely agreed. "And then when he fell down in Havana, again we thought...."
"But it didn't happen then," Valdés said sadly.
"This time we are going to wait until God decides what his destiny will be," he said. "We will be sure."
At 12:30, street vendor Lazaro Marquez had set up shop about a half-block north of Versailles. The 43-year-old Cuban was celebrating the demise of el barbudo by hustling Cuban flags for five bucks each. "By tomorrow the price for the flags will double," he said nonchalantly. "My suppliers can't keep up with the demand."
Marquez, a plump gent with a brown-and-gray goatee and two earrings in his left ear, didn't have any plans to return to Cuba in the event Castro indeed croaks. "I have no interest in the people there." In fact he would like to see the island annexed by Florida. "Change the name to Havamiami," Marquez suggested.
A few minutes later, twenty-year-old Greg Mesana sauntered over to the line of people wielding signs near Versailles and grinned at the cars honking loudly in response. He wore a straw fedora, sunglasses, and a Cuban baseball jersey. Mesana was born in Miami to a Cuban mother and an American father. Like many of the second generation, to him the concept of a Cuba without Castro is so remote it's almost unfathomable. So why was Mesana there?
"Oh, we're here for the sandwiches," he said.