(CNN) — News of Fidel Castro’s death was quick to reach Miami, Florida, the center of the Cuban exile community, where an outpouring of emotion brought jubilant crowds onto the streets of Little Havana.
Some popped champagne corks, others clanged pots and waved the Cuban flag as they cheered the death of a man who defined the lives of so many of their number through decades in exile in the United States.
Hundreds gathered outside the neighborhood’s Versailles restaurant, a longtime haunt of the exile community, spilling out on to the street from the sidewalk as they chanted, sang, danced and took smart phone videos of a historic moment.
Others shouted “libertad” or “freedom,” a reflection of the freedom of expression they would like their compatriots in Cuba to enjoy.
The party was still going strong at 4 a.m. local time, more than five hours after the news of Castro’s death was first announced by his brother Raul on Cuban TV.
Passing motorists added to the cacophony, honking their horns and flashing their headlights in a show of support as they drove down Calle Ocho in the heart of Little Havana.
‘Celebration of a beginning of liberty’
“This is a celebration but in a way, not a celebration of a death but it’s a celebration hopefully of a beginning of liberty that we are all waiting for, for many years,” one reveler, who was himself born in Cuba, told CNN.
“The hope is that not just because Fidel died, but also hopefully it opens up the people in Cuba a little bit more to go against what’s happening there.”
Many families have suffered decades of separation, he said, with those who left unable to return to Cuba.
Another Cuban-American, born in Miami, told CNN he saw this as a “great moment, not to celebrate the death of somebody but to celebrate freedom,” particularly for the many political prisoners still held in Cuba.
“I would love to go to Cuba, a free Cuba. Right now Cuba, is not free. And so the hope is – and I think the celebrations here show — everybody here hopes for a free Cuba soon and for human rights on the island to come to pass.”
Painful decades of exile
Those out on the streets included Cuban-Americans of all ages, including some who first came from Cuba in 1959 after Castro’s revolutionaries ousted dictator Fulgencio Bastista.
Others left in the following decades, many joining their fellow exiles in Miami and elsewhere in the United States.
More than 260,000 Cubans left in a U.S.-organized airlift between 1965 and 1973. In 1980, Castro let another 125,000 leave in the chaotic Mariel Boatlift. Among them were criminals released from Cuban jails who brought a violent crime wave to Florida. At other times, desperate Cubans fled the island nation in makeshift boats across the treacherous Straits of Florida. Thousands died from drowning or exposure to the brutal Caribbean sun.
Few who left back in 1959 would have believed Fidel Castro would hang on to power for so long, only ceding the presidency to his brother Raul in recent years.
Fidel Castro lived long enough to see a historic thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States. The two nations reestablished diplomatic relations in July 2015 and President Barack Obama visited the island earlier this year.
That thaw has been welcomed particularly by younger Cuban-Americans, many of whom who are open to a change in policy, but has been more problematic for many of the older generation, who have supported strict US sanctions for decades as a means to pressure a repressive Cuban government.