MIAMI — It did not matter that it was the middle of the night, or that it began to drizzle. When this city’s Cuban-American residents heard the news, they sprinted to Little Havana. They banged pots and pans. They sang the Cuban national anthem and waved the Cuban flag. They danced and hugged, laughed and cried, shouted and rejoiced.
The seemingly eternal vigil for the death of Fidel Castro, a man who had profoundly changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people here — dividing their families, taking their property, imprisoning and sometimes shooting their friends and relatives, wrenching them from their homes and their country — was over. Finally.
“I owe this to my dad — this going out and celebrating,” said Isabel De Lara, 67, a former banker who came to Calle Ocho — Eighth Street — to join in the jubilation. She wished her father, who is dead, could have joined her.
More than five decades had passed since Ms. De Lara stepped off a plane alone, from Cuba, sent here at age 12 by parents who feared for her future after the Castro revolution. For her and so many others, Mr. Castro’s death was a watershed, for he embodied the revolution and the heartbreak that followed.
“Him dying represents the end of something awful that happened to us,” she said. “It’s actually him — not anybody else — who caused this. It’s because of him that we lost our opportunity to have a life in our country.”
Waves of other Cubans also came, transforming not just their own lives but the city itself, gradually turning it into the unofficial bilingual capital of Latin America. With the goal of ousting Mr. Castro and establishing democracy in Cuba, early exiles built a degree of political and economic clout that outstripped their relatively small numbers.
Focusing first on local politics and business in the 1970s and 1980s, the exiles and their children, led by the powerful Cuban American National Foundation, catapulted into national politics and influence. They gained the power to tilt presidential elections toward Republicans and sway American foreign policy against appeasement with Mr. Castro.
“It was important to take the struggle outside of Eighth Street to Washington,” said Jorge Mas Santos, the son of Jorge Mas Canosa, the man who spearheaded the foundation and was seen as the leader of Miami’s exile community.
That influence remains. The American trade embargo on Cuba is still in force, requiring the vote of a Congress that is reluctant to remove it. And this year’s presidential campaign saw two Americans of Cuban descent — Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — run for the office.
But in the last decade, the pro-embargo, hard-line grip on the minds and votes of people in Miami and elsewhere has weakened, creating divisions among Cuban-Americans over how deeply to engage with Cuba and its people.
With Mr. Castro’s death, some hard-liners are pushing for retrenchment and hope that President-elect Donald J. Trump will crack down now that the government has lost its father figure. Others say that this is the time to flood the zone with more people, ideas and goods. Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, has opened the window slightly to economic reform, travel and American influence. Now that his older brother is gone, they argue, he will be freer to make changes.
But the oldest and most vehement exiles — the historicos, as they are called — are dying off in large numbers. Their children, while still passionately opposed to Mr. Castro, are open to closer ties with the Cuban people as a way of stoking change. (Even Mr. Mas Santos is part of this group.) And their grandchildren know far less about Cuba and Mr. Castro; many are more intrigued than outraged. At the same time, recent arrivals, while deeply disenchanted with the Cuban government, want to see and help their relatives on the island, above all else.
Those shifts in attitude have been translated in Washington. Two years ago, President Obama surprised Cuban-Americans by announcing a series of changes. He re-established diplomatic ties and made it easier for Americans to visit and send money and goods, and also for American businesses to establish a foothold.
“We have moved from a politics of passion to a politics of realism,” said Andy Gomez, a political analyst who was a senior fellow in Cuban studies at the University of Miami. “We are going to be passionate for the next 72 hours. But the realism is that the transition has to come within the island. The leadership has to come from within the island. I don’t think anyone in South Florida thinks they will be president of Cuba, and if they do they are fools.”
But Saturday was mostly a day to celebrate. Overnight, thousands, including Ms. De Lara, joined an impromptu conga line of catharsis in front of Versailles Restaurant on Eighth Street, the unofficial headquarters of Miami’s Cuban exiles.
So many people showed up, including scores of young people, that the police, at the mayor’s request, closed off several blocks to accommodate the celebration.
Erick and Janette Revuelta stood outside Versailles toasting Mr. Castro’s death with small cups of Cuban coffee. They had come from the St. Augustine, Fla., area to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.
Mr. Revuelta, 38, came to America by raft when he was 16, along with his father and two brothers, in 1994, just before President Bill Clinton signed the agreement with Cuba that allowed refugees to stay only if they reached dry land, the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy. His mother immigrated several years later.
Mr. Revuelta also came to Calle Ocho when rumors of Mr. Castro’s death previously spread. “I was here last time he died,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Antonio Rodgriguez, 73, left the island in 1960, shortly after he was imprisoned for three months after speaking against the government. He took a dimmer view.
“He died, but his brother is still there, the government is still there, it’s still the oppressive government,” Mr. Rodgriguez said.
Vivian Garcia-Montes Castellá, 75, was 19 when she came to the United States from Havana, thinking her stay would be temporary. In the early hours of Saturday, she wept after hearing the news, changed out of her pajamas and joined the caravan to Little Havana. She danced in the middle of the street, hugging strangers, as car horns blared.
But there was an overlay of sadness. Ms. Castellá knew so many people who had waited for this day their entire lives, and many of them had died before it came. “There was such sadness to think of all the people, and what everyone went through, and the people who aren’t here today to celebrate and witness this,” she said. “My brother who was in the Bay of Pigs, he couldn’t enjoy it the way I am. The people they killed. The people who drowned on the way over here.”
In Miami, the post-Castro convulsion had long been talked about, rumored and planned for. Once, the city and county had a contingency plan to address a possible mass exodus of Cubans from the island to Miami; that is no longer anticipated. But many schools have a Castro-is-dead plan. And police departments were prepared for what to do — in Miami, this meant letting the people celebrate.
The fact that Mr. Castro’s death came during a long holiday weekend made the news more manageable in many ways.
Luis Lasa, 67, a retired banker, watched events unfold on television from his home, but it felt no less emotional. It was a lifetime ago that his father, an executive for an American company in Cuba, got a call from a military office on Oct. 25, 1960, warning him to leave the country. He left that night, and the family followed the next day. Mr. Lasa was 10 years old.
“They destroyed our families, they destroyed our traditions,” said Mr. Lasa, who lost a cousin in the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion. “Forget the property that we lost. We had been in Cuba 250 years. We lost so much there.”
On Saturday, for so many exiles, it finally became easier to look forward and not back. Fidel Castro, even in his old age, remained the symbol of the revolution. Raúl Castro ruled, but always in his older brother’s shadow, exiles said.
Without Fidel Castro, Cuba can exhale. Even though change may not come quickly, there is a strong possibility it will come.
“This is the beginning of the end,” Mr. Lasa said.