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Key West Watches, Waits For What Comes Next With Cuba

Nancy Klingener
Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami and has a long, complicated relationship with Cuba.

In the Florida Keys, where ties to Cuba date back more than a century, news of Fidel Castro's death met a more muted response than on the mainland.

There were no spontaneous celebrations on the streets or even at Cuban restaurants. But of course the news was on everyone's minds Saturday morning.

Sonya Leto is a fifth-generation Conch, or Keys native. She was getting her Cuban coffee fix at El Mocho café on Stock Island. She said the news made her think of her late great-grandmother, who came from Cuba after Castro took power.

"Her dream was to always go home and claim her property, and that never happened," said Leto, who has never been to Cuba herself.

"I don't like to say I'm glad to see somebody dead," she said. "But it would be nice to be able to go back and see what belonged to our family one day."

The San Carlos Institute on Duval Street was closed for the weekend to put up Christmas decorations. Rafael Peñalver, the institute's president, said no events were planned. The institute dates back to the 19th century, and was founded by Cuban cigar workers in Key West who contributed to efforts to oust Spain from the country.

The institute's board "decided that the most appropriate response to a man who caused so much bloodshed and suffering in pursuit of his unquenchable thirst for power and grandeur is to ignore him," Peñalver said.

Key Westers have long traveled back and forth to Cuba and that travel has picked up considerably since the Obama administration renewed diplomatic ties to the island. Former Key West  Commissioner Tony Yaniz was born in Cuba and returned there for the first time last year.

"Fidel's death will bring a sense of justice, but it will not change Cuba," Yaniz wrote on Facebook Saturday morning, noting that Raul Castro has been at the head of the government for years.

"The only thing that will continue to change Cuba is for Americans, including Cuban Americans, to spend money there," Yaniz said. "It's great to say we want Cuba to be a democracy, but unless we endorse capitalism there won't be any further change."

Monroe County Emergency Management was monitoring the situation, but Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt said he did not expect to see mass migration across the Florida Straits, such as occurred in 1980 with the Mariel Boatlift and the rafter crisis in 1994.

Migration across the Florida Straits — and via Mexico — has grown over the last two years, as many Cubans have feared the end of special privileges under the Cuban Adjustment Act that allows those who make it to U.S. soil to stay.

Alejandro Pascual was born in Cuba and has lived in Key West since 2006. He is the author of "Key West: Passion for Cuba's Liberty," about the long relationship between the islands.

He described the mood among Key West's Cuban community on Saturday as "quiet celebration." Pascual said he, like many, had been keeping a bottle of champagne for this day.

"I have decided not to open it now," he said Saturday. "We have to wait. Cuba is not free yet."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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