A bottle of sparkling cider had waited for two decades at El Oriental de Cuba restaurant in Jamaica Plain for the day Fidel Castro would be no more. Saturday, the cork finally popped.

“It feels good,” said restaurant owner Nobel Garcia, 70, who came to Boston as a child in 1956. “Let’s just hope that we’re celebrating something that is going to become something good for the Cuban people.”

A specially made label on the bottle read in Spanish: Let’s celebrate. Open only when Fidel dies.

Castro, 90, died late Friday night, his brother Raul announced on state television Friday. Raul Castro took over as president from his ailing brother in 2008.


Much like Garcia, Cubans in Boston Saturday reacted with complex emotions to the passing of a man who was as much loathed as loved.

The former communist dictator is known for his violent rule but also for socialist policies that brought free education and health care to the island nation. Many expressed a mix of relief that he was gone and wariness about Cuba’s next chapter.

“I don’t wish anybody death, but he’s not a good person,” said Garcia.

Nearby, inside Mr-V Auto Accessories, Cuban exile Eduardo Vasallo broke down in tears remembering what happened to his family at Castro’s hands. He escaped in 1962, at age 17, but three years later his relatives weren’t as fortunate.

His mother spent five years imprisoned and at hard labor for trying to leave in a boat that he had sent for her, using money he saved working at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, he said.

His sister, then about 11, was jailed for three or four months, he said. Cuban military fired into the cave where she was hiding with other people trying to escape.

“I’m very happy,” Vasallo, 72, said of Castro’s death. “I would have been happier if it had happened 50 years ago, before he killed so many people. … It would have saved my mother. It would have saved a lot of people who tried to leave Cuba in boats.”


After her release from prison, Vasallo’s mother came to the US through a program for political exiles. His sister and father came in 1980 through the Mariel boatlift, he said.

At the nearby shop La Casa de Los Regalos, owner Aida Lopez showed off a roll of toilet paper printed with Castro’s bearded visage. But the 81-year-old said she didn’t hate the dictator, even though his regime had seized her family car and her husband’s gasoline delivery truck after he took power.

Eduardo Vasallo cried as he talked about his sister being shot at in Cuba when she was 11 and trying to escape the island on a boat.
Eduardo Vasallo cried as he talked about his sister being shot at in Cuba when she was 11 and trying to escape the island on a boat. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Many Cubans said their American friends and family fail to grasp their complicated feelings about their homeland and the cruel, yet charismatic, dictator.

But some caught firsthand glimpses of his complexity.

Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern and former Representative Bill Delahunt were part of a working group of lawmakers who believed that the US trade embargo, which remains today, was ineffective; they pushed instead to maintain relations.

The group of 25 Democrats and as many Republicans traveled often to Havana and had seven- or eight-hour dinners with Castro in his presidential palace, Delahunt said Saturday in a phone interview.

“He was really an impressive figure,” he said, recalling Castro’s keen intellect, love for debate but also his record of brutality toward Cubans.

McGovern issued a statement Saturday that said he expressed “strong disagreements on human rights and pushed for needed reforms” with Castro, “but also recognized their efforts to expand education and healthcare for the Cuban people. ... More than ever the U.S. must continue to be a friend and partner to the Cuban people.”


During his presidency, Barack Obama began to thaw US relations with Cuba. He traveled there in March, the first sitting president to do so since 1928.

Many younger Cubans believe that as Castro’s generation dies off, much more will change. They wonder how Donald Trump’s upcoming presidency will alter the US relationship with Cuba.

Aida Lopez, 81, who left Cuba in 1972, said Castro was a bad man. She held up a roll of toilet paper with his face on it that she keeps in her store on Centre Street.
Aida Lopez, 81, who left Cuba in 1972, said Castro was a bad man. She held up a roll of toilet paper with his face on it that she keeps in her store on Centre Street. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Hopefully we’ll see a continued thawing,” said Jared Carter, a Vermont Law School assistant professor and co-director of the Cuban American Friendship Society, a group that has members in Cuba now, he said, working to repair the largest set of public tennis courts in Havana.

In 2008, Carter and his wife, who is Cuban, filed a lawsuit against then-President George W. Bush for his policy limiting Cubans from returning to their country more than once every three years. Obama eliminated that restriction.

Castro’s death was especially poignant for visitors to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Dorchester on Saturday. In 1962, Castro became the center of the world’s attention for 13 days as he and Kennedy faced off on the brink of nuclear war.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Isabelle Segal, who visited the museum Saturday on her 90th birthday. Segal’s daughter recalled a conversation she had as a 10-year-old girl with her mother during the height of the crisis.


“I sat down next to [my mom] and said, ‘is there going to be a war?’” said Segal’s daughter Amy Shorey, 65, of Arlington.

“She said, ‘I don’t know,’” Shorey recalled. “We were all terrified.”

In a phone interview Saturday, Alberto Vasallo, president and CEO of El Mundo Boston, a Spanish-language newspaper, described how he grew up anticipating this moment.

In high school, Vasallo and his friends couldn’t wait for two things: the Red Sox to win the World Series and Castro to die, he said. When the Sox won in 2004, they said “one down, one to go.” In the wee hours of Saturday he got text messages from those friends. You finally have both, they said.

Vasallo, 48, said his father came to Boston from Cuba when he was 43 years old and told anybody who would listen about Cuba and how he longed for it to be free. The family grew up in Cambridge and Vasallo is the nephew of business owner Eduardo Vasallo.

“This may be more symbolic than anything, [we’re] not going to see anything right away, but man, does it feel good,” Vasallo said.

There are an estimated 2.1 million Cubans in the US according to the US Census Bureau. The number entering the US spiked dramatically after Obama reopened relations in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. During the first 10 months of 2016, 46,600 Cubans came to the US, compared with 24,000 two years prior.


The city of Boston estimated that in 2009, 2.1 percent of residents were Cuban.

Back in Jamaica Plain, at the Old Havana Restaurant, owner Sixto Lopez expressed less joy, but more a lingering resentment for the damage Castro wrought in Cuba.

Lopez, who left Cuba in 1984, said the Cuban revolution wasn’t the achievement some leftists would like to believe.

“I personally know that revolution doesn’t exist. It’s not good for my countrymen,” he said. “Some people love Fidel, but they’re not Cubans. It’s easy to love somebody if you don’t live under them.”

Fidel Castro stood in the last car at a Westwood train station during a stop on his way to visit Boston in April 1959.
Fidel Castro stood in the last car at a Westwood train station during a stop on his way to visit Boston in April 1959.George N. Lester

Aimee Ortiz of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Amanda Burke contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached atjeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@jeremycfox.