The streets of the city’s Little Havana neighborhood erupted in celebration as word spread that Cuban President Fidel Castro had temporarily relinquished power, with hundreds of people waving flags and many talking hopefully of returning to their home country for the first time in years or decades.
People waved Cuban flags on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, shouting “Cuba, Cuba, Cuba,” hoping that the end was near for the man most of them consider a ruthless dictator. Lighting cigars, banging pots, cheering and dancing, they recalled their own flights from the communist island or those of their parents and grandparents.
In Hialeah, a heavily Cuban-American city northwest of Miami, 34-year-old Orlando Pino steered his bicycle with one hand and waved a Cuban flag with the other. He said he wants to return to Cuba when Castro dies.
“There’s a lot of people in Cuba who are home crying,” said Pino, who arrived in the Miami area two years on a religious visa. “There’s a lot of confusion over there because many people loved him.
“It’s all a process for the Cuban people to wake up from their sleep. It’s a lot of time under one person and they have become accustomed to that, good or bad.”
Castro said in a statement read on Cuban television that he had suffered intestinal bleeding, apparently due to stress from recent public appearances in Argentina and Cuba.
Castro said that extreme stress “had provoked in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obligated me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure.”
Castro also requested the celebration of his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.
“We long for the day when power transfers in Cuba are the results of a free, democratic process and reflect the wishes of the Cuban people, not the preordained wishes of a dictator” said Joanna Gonzalez, spokeswoman for Raices de Esperanza, or Roots of Hope. “Although this transfer of power is being characterized as temporary, the oppression under which the Cuban people live is enduring and continues.”
‘A clear reminder’
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, added: “This is a clear reminder that the end of the Castro regime is approaching, and that the only solution is free elections and the rule of law.”
Many on the street thought Castro was already dead, including Isabel Aguero Kling, 34. “They are preparing to tell the people slowly,” she said.
She came to Calle Ocho with her grandmother, who was imprisoned in Cuba for 15 years.
“She lived the rest of her life waiting for this day,” Kling said.
Armando Tellez sat on the hood of his red truck and watched as hundreds of cars lined the streets of Hialeah, a heavily Cuban-American city northwest of Miami. Tellez, who came from Cuba in 1995, said he was not sure how the community would react in the long run, but he said Cuban Americans deserve to celebrate.
“This is a singular event in Cuba’s history because there has never been anything that has given the people so much hope,” said Tellez, 33. “My first reaction was disbelief. My second reaction was hope.”
Raul Castro, who turned 75 in June, has been taking on a more public profile in recent weeks.
White House spokesman Peter Watkins said the administration was monitoring the situation.
“We can’t speculate on Castro’s health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba’s freedom,” Watkins said.
Coast Guard officials said they were on standby, awaiting further orders. “No ships have moved, no cutters have moved, everything is on standby,” spokesman Dana Warr said. “We have units under way, but no plans from the Coast Guard have been put into action yet.”
U.S. officials have long had plans in place to head off any possible mass exodus from Cuba by sea in case that the government suddenly opened the island’s borders as occurred during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and again during a similar crisis in 1995.
Miami police were monitoring the celebrations.
“Over the years there have been rumors that Castro has passed on, but there is no belief that it will be a bad time, that there will be mass riots,” said police spokesman Delrish Moss. “Just the opposite — lots of celebration, lots of joy and happiness.”
A spokesman for the federal Department of Homeland Security said there had been no changes in national security measures.
Arturo Cobo, a Cuban exile activist, said it seemed strange that the secretive Cuban government had disclosed Castro’s operation.
“Either he is dead or this is an elaborate practice for the Cuban government to test the reaction of its military, its ministry, its people and the American government,” Cobo said.
While watching the news from his Miami home, Cobo speculated that the “practice” could be a way for Castro to test who his enemies are and who his friends are on the island.
Cobo said that the exile community had been waiting for this “forever.”
“There is exultation and joy in the exile community tonight,” he said.