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Cuban-Americans on Long Island rejoice at death of Fidel Castro

John Riccardi, left, of Wantagh, with Rudy Acosta,

John Riccardi, left, of Wantagh, with Rudy Acosta, owner of Huntington Station's Rincon Criollo Cuban restaurant, during a celebration of the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016. Credit: Johnny Milano

David Mejias’ Cuban-exile father didn’t live to hear the news of Fidel Castro’s death, but Mejias on Saturday was imagining his reaction.

“My father is rejoicing in heaven right now,” the Farmingdale resident said. “Castro tortured and killed his brother . . . and committed innumerable atrocities against my father’s family and close friends.”

At Rincon Criollo, a Cuban restaurant in Huntington Station, several tables and barstools were filled during the typically slow midafternoon with people celebrating the news with mojitos and plates of garlic chicken, yucca, and black beans and rice.

“They’re not happy about someone’s death,” said co-owner Rudy Acosta, 39, the son of Cuban émigrés. “They’re celebrating what he represented, that that died: the oppression, being separated from your family, taking away your human rights.”

Acosta ran outside in his pajamas early Saturday and banged a pot with a ladle, mimicking celebrations in Miami — although he was the only one in his Melville street.

Judith Núñez Riccardi, 50, of Wantagh, and family members and friends sang the Cuban national anthem and rang cowbells to mark Castro’s death at Rincon Criollo. Her husband draped a Cuban flag across his back.

But Núñez Riccardi also was sad, because her father, who fled Cuba in 1967, died in 2014.

“I cried because he wasn’t able to see this,” she said of her father, who fought with Castro in the Cuban mountains in the late 1950s to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista. She said he became disillusioned after Castro took power and his government began killing opponents.

On Saturday morning, Mejias, 46, a former Democratic Nassau County legislator, perused a yellowed 1962 document detailing the conviction of his father, José Mejias, for — the Cuban government alleged — attempting to travel to the United States to plot Castro’s overthrow.

José Mejias, a member of an anti-Communist group, fled Cuba in 1966 after spending four years in jail.

Mejias said Castro’s death provides closure for Cuban-Americans who still have vivid memories of the repression under Castro decades after leaving the island.

“My uncle said to me, ‘I can finally rest in peace knowing that he’s dead,’ ” Mejias said.

Margarita Grasing, 73, of Baldwin, whose father’s banks were seized by Castro’s government before he left Cuba in 1966, said Castro’s death makes it easier for Raúl Castro, 85, to continue reforms and open up the Cuban economy.

Raúl Castro may have been hesitant to go further while his brother was still alive, she said.

“I think Raúl has an open hand now,” she said. “He can play the cards the way he wants.”

While Mejias is thinking about traveling to Cuba in the spring, Grasing has no desire to return to her homeland.

“Everybody that meant something in my life, my family, they’re all gone,” she said.

“To go there and look at the memories, when the people I love are not there — I’m not interested.”

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