- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

UNION CITY, N.J. (AP) - Cuban-Americans gathered Saturday in communities around New Jersey to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, saying now is the time for the world to take steps to bring freedom to their homeland.

In Union City, a pharmacy had raised a large Cuban flag along with a sign stating “the liberty bells are ringing. Long live Cuba libre.” A clock also had a sign reading “Fidel, your time has come,” and a man walking said “one less to worry about.”

The news of Castro’s death was long anticipated by the exiles that left after he took power. Rumors have come and gone for decades, and Castro’s death had become something of a joke. This time, though, it was real.

“This is about the people,” said Natalie Rodriguez, 19, of North Bergen. “There are people that say Castro is a revolutionary, but that’s not democracy over there.”

Rodriguez became emotional while discussing her grandparents struggle to leave Cuba to escape Castro’s regime.

“They had it hard, they had it very hard, but there were people that have had it worse, people that come in makeshift rafts. They were coming here for the dream,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, who was 11 when his family fled Cuba, called on the international community to “seize the moment” and bring freedom to his homeland.

“Fidel Castro defiled democracy, oppressed innocent people and imprisoned a nation with his totalitarian tactics,” the Democrat said. “We must insist that all political prisoners are freed and that basic human rights are respected. The Cuban people deserve to live in a society where they have the freedom to access information, to organize, to worship and to speak what is on their mind without fear of being thrown into the gulags.”

Another Cuban-American lawmaker form New Jersey, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, said Castro’s “oppressive legacy will haunt the Cuban regime and our hemisphere forever.” But he said Castro’s death provided an opportunity to bring democracy to the communist-controlled island.

“Instead of condoning the continuation of repressive actions of a repressive regime simply because some believe it’s been long enough, the United States and the international community must stand up and support the Cuban people as they seek ways to implement changes that bring the fundamental principles of democracy,” Menendez, a Democrat, said.

Menendez and Sires both strongly opposed President Barack Obama’s decision last year to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. They also have called for the return of Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted in 1977 in the death of state Trooper Werner Foerster during a gunfight on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973.

Chesimard was sentenced to life in prison but escaped and made her way to Cuba, where Castro granted her asylum and she has been living under the name Assata Shakur.

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