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Cubans cautiously optimistic
With resignation of Castro, locals hope for democracy

NORCROSS - When 12-year-old Jose Perez climbed onto a DC3 twin engine airplane to depart Cuba, his parents believed the revolution was a temporary hiccup on the island. It would be five years before the elder Perezes were reunited with their youngest son in Key West, Fla.

For about four decades, the Perez family dreamed of the day Fidel Castro would lose power and freedom would return to their homeland. Castro, however, held on 10 years longer than Perez's father.

"I wish my dad were alive to see this today," said Perez, state board of education member, seventh congressional district. "I promised to take him back on the day."

But when the announcement came Tuesday that the sickly, 81-year-old Castro would leave office, local reaction was subdued.

"A lot of Cubans think he's died, because you don't see him," said Arecelli Sanz, a Peruvian bartender whose husband is Cuban.

In 2000, 4,715 Cubans lived in the 10-county metro-Atlanta area, 1,018 of those in Gwinnett County, said Michael Wall, spokesman for the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Palomilla's House Cuban Grill in Norcross was about two-thirds full for Tuesday lunch. No celebration was taking place and only two of those patrons were Cuban.

"We have had busier days," Sanz said.

Myra Muñiz of Alpharetta, a Miami native whose parents fled Cuba in 1960, called Castro's departure anticlimactic.

"This takes away the ability to celebrate his death," Muñiz said. "Nothing is going to change. Raul (Castro) is just a figurehead. I think Castro has a system in place that would be hard to break, but I think it will be less strong."

Rudy Campos, 46, a Suwanee resident and native of Camaguey, Cuba, agrees.

"I don't think there will be any significant change in Cuba until Fidel Castro is dead and buried," he said. "This move makes the transition of power to his brother Raul a little easier. There is less likely to be trouble in Cuba while Fidel, ill or not, is still in the background."

Carlos Campos, a 40-year-old Cuban exile who grew up in Gwinnett County, believes the island can be led out of communism.

"If the Soviet Union was able to produce Mikhail Gorbachev, I know Cuba is capable of providing a similarly bold leader," Carlos Campos said.

Many Cubans who were exiled as adults and led a passionate U.S.-based fight against Castro are aging or dead. Taking their places are two generations of Cubans who have grown up under Castro's regime, either in the U.S. or Cuba. They are accustomed to Castro's dictatorship and many of them believe the embargo has been an ineffective tool that hurt only the Cuban people.

"I don't think the embargo has brought Cuba any closer to freedom, on the contrary, Castro uses it to his own advantage by blaming all of Cuba's economic problems on the U.S.," Rudy Campos said.

Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, and Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, both favor keeping the embargo in place until Cuba takes strides toward democracy.

"That includes free press, free elections and the release of political prisoners," Casas said. "Cuba is essential to the stability of the hemisphere. They dragged us into the Spanish-American War."

Raul Castro has showed an interest in change by calling for improved relations with the U.S. Meanwhile, Cuban-Americans express a cautious optimism about the island's future.

"My best hope for Cuba is that when his brother dies, Raul Castro will make peace with the U.S. and, if not renounce communism, at least adopt a Chinese style of government in Cuba," said Rudy Campos. "Communist ideology with a capitalistic economy."

Casas, whose parents escaped Cuba in 1970 prior to his birth, said the world is seeing the beginning of freedom for Cuba.

"Castro is the revolution. It's lifespan has been spent," Casas said. "We know there are factions there and this opens the door for one. I compare it to Tito and Yugoslavia. Those who wanted to continue the regime when Tito fell couldn't because they didn't have his charisma. Raul doesn't, either. He cannot hold the regime together. I want our nation to help prevent a civil war in Cuba."