Celebration in the streets of Little Havana gave way Tuesday to speculation about the state of Fidel Castro’s health and what would happen in Cuba if he were to die, while county officials activated a rumor control hot line.
Castro remained out of sight Tuesday after undergoing intestinal surgery and temporarily turning over power to his brother Raul. Some in Florida speculated that the leader who has defied the United States for nearly half a century already could be dead.
“When a man has been in power for so long, they don’t tell people at first. I am afraid that when people begin to realize that he is dead, the real fight for power will begin,” said Eric Hernandez, 33, a writer for Telemundo who said he had canceled plans to return to Cuba on Friday to visit his father for the first time in five years.
South Florida’s Cuban-American community of about 800,000 is the largest segment of the state’s fast-growing Hispanic community and its influence is felt across Florida. Cheering crowds waving Cuban flags celebrated the news of Castro’s illness late Monday and into early Tuesday.
One group had dressed as migrants wearing life jackets, pretending to paddle a cardboard boat down Little Havana’s Calle Ocho in Miami — recalling the desperate journey many exiles have taken across the Florida Straits.
“This is a celebration of people of hope returning to their home country, something that is 40-something years in the making,” said Joe Martinez, chairman of Miami-Dade County commissioners, who was born in Cuba.
Officials said Tuesday there were no arrests but the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operation Center raised its operations to level 2 status, monitoring the situation and activating the rumor control hot line.
Coast Guard officials said they were on standby but reported no significant increase in activity in the Florida Straits during the night. 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 in 1980 and 1995.
Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, said under that plan the Coast Guard and other agencies would intercept people trying to go to or from Cuba.
“It’s a plan to not allow for mass migration into the country at a time where the net result of that is that it creates tremendous hardship and risk for people that can lose their lives,” Bush said Tuesday in Tallahassee.
A Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Dana Warr, said no contingency plans had been activated and no personnel or assets had been moved as of Tuesday morning.
‘In an uproar’
The Cuban population in Florida is hardly unified, with hard-line exiles urging a tough stance against Castro and a younger generation of Cubans who were born in the United States — or raised here most of their lives — more likely to support engagement with Cuba.
In Tampa’s heavily Cuban-American Ybor City, Gladys Sequeira-Garcia said her family had been “in an uproar” since the news broke. They fled Cuba in 1960.
“My hope for Cuba would be for it to grow as the power it used to be,” she said. “I want my parents to see Cuba back to the way it was when they left — the beautiful beaches, the growing economy and the happy people.”
In Hialeah, Orlando Pino said he wants to return to Cuba when Castro dies.
“There’s a lot of people in Cuba who are home crying,” said Pino, 34, 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.”
‘Business as usual’
Others said a transition to Castro’s brother Raul would have little effect on the Cuban government’s policies.
“Raul Castro will give the Cuban people nothing but business as usual,” said David Sandoval, 28, lead singer of the Cuban-American funk band Delexilio and a New York City lawyer.
“It is only through nonviolent, democratic elections that a legitimate government and meaningful change can take hold in Cuba.”
Miami-Dade College sociology professor Juan Clark, who specializes in Cuban affairs, said he was surprised that the announcement of Castro’s illness was done so publicly.
Clark noted that when Castro had a well-publicized tumble in 2004, shattering a kneecap and breaking an arm, he did not delegate power to his brother.
“Either he is in very, very serious condition or he may have already passed away. They might well be preparing gradually for that succession that they want to take place,” Clark said.