updated 8/2/2006 5:32:18 PM ET 2006-08-02T21:32:18

The White House and Congress, caught unaware by Fidel Castro’s illness, prepared Wednesday for a possible showdown in Cuba as lawmakers drafted legislation that would pay millions of dollars to dissidents who fight for democratic change.

“The message will be: The United States stands with you,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of the authors, said in an interview. “Be ready to assert your independence.”

There was no sign of upheaval in Cuba Wednesday, two days after Castro stunned U.S. officials and many of his own countrymen with the news that he had temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raul, in order to undergo surgery.

The handover was a surprise to the White House and Congress, one senator said.

“The president’s comment was that everybody was caught by surprise, and we’ll have to wait and see” what U.S. action is necessary, said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who discussed the developments with President Bush on Tuesday. “I think all of us can say we had no idea this was coming.”

The remarks underscored the scanty reliable intelligence the U.S. has on an old Cold War foe that lies just 90 miles off the Florida shore.

Mass exodus discouraged
“It’s difficult for us to assess what the situation is,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. He cautioned Cubans against any mass exodus — and Cuban-American exiles against returning to claim property they lost in Cuba.

“Stay where you are. This is not a time for people to try to be getting in the water and going either way,” Snow added. “We have talked about the importance, eventually, of finding an orderly and safe way for people to make transit between two places.”

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States had no independent information about Castro’s health. “This is a pretty closed decision-making circle and it’s very opaque as to what is actually going on,” he said.

For now, administration officials and members of Congress were focused on offering dissidents cash for fighting for Democratic change.

Legislation sponsored by Nelson, fellow Floridian Mel Martinez, Majority Leader Bill Frist and others would authorize as much as $80 million over two years — and pay half that almost immediately — to dissidents and non-governmental organizations on the island.

Recommended by a presidential commission three weeks ago, the legislation says those eligible for the money would include political prisoners, workers’ rights organizations, independent libraries, journalists, doctors and economists.

Meanwhile, the House’s three Cuban-American members, Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, discussed the issue early Wednesday with members of Bush’s National Security Council before boarding a flight to Miami.

Federal law enforcement officials are keeping watch on the ocean between Florida and Cuba.

No increase in traffic from, to Cuba
The Coast Guard, which routinely patrols the area, has seen “absolutely no indication” of an increase of refugees since Castro’s announcement, said Cmdr. Jeff Carter. “Nor are we seeing any going the other direction, from Florida.”

According to a defense official, Navy ships are not moving closer to Cuba. Tropical Storm Chris in the eastern Caribbean, expected to become the first hurricane of the Atlantic season over the weekend — a development that may also deter potential rafters.

The Navy does have a large number of ships — from destroyers to frigates — in the general area, at the Mayport Naval Station in Florida and the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. Those ships would be in range and ready to respond if the situation in Cuba changed, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some U.S. officials fear that post-Castro instability in Cuba could lead to a large-scale migration by Cubans to South Florida, similar to those in 1980 and 1994.

The Coast Guard has long had a plan, called Operation Vigilant Sentry, to deal with mass migrations from Cuba and other destinations by sea. But the agency has not activated them in light of Castro’s illness, Carter said. He said no additional ships, aircraft or personnel have been moved to the region since Castro stepped aside.

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