For Cuban exiles in Miami, it's wait and see

Castro's handing over power raises hopes


MIAMI -- After 47 years, Miami still waits.

The horn-honking, flag-waving and impromptu street parties that erupted shortly after Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother late Monday continued in pockets across Miami-Dade County yesterday, but the jubilation was tempered by uncertainty.

"It is a steppingstone, but the question is to what," said Leonardo Valma, 42, a history teacher who fled Cuba when he was a boy. "We all have our theories and speculations, but from the layman on the street to George Bush in the White House, that's all they are, theories and speculation."

Valma and other exiles wondered whether Castro, who marched into Havana in 1959, is dead, whether the news of his surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding is the beginning of the end, and whether his brother Raul's temporary rule will mean more of the same or lead to significant change.

Any changes will probably come slowly and won't necessarily be to the liking of most of the 800,000 Cubans in South Florida, analysts said.

"One of my concerns would be the community not celebrate too soon, because this is just the beginning of whatever," said Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

"And that whatever may not be what we hope for. This community has a sad history of dreams delayed and expectations deflated."

Walking into the Versailles Restaurant, a popular gathering spot for exiles in Little Havana, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz offered cautionary advice to revelers to celebrate responsibly.

"Things can and will be emotional," he said. "Many of us have been waiting for this for decades. I know I have been personally waiting for it."

In Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush said he had met with Coast Guard officials while in Miami on Monday and had urged them to update plans to deal with Castro's death.

"You don't want a mass migration that creates the loss of life and creates tremendous hardships for local communities and our state," Bush said.

Coast Guard officials said they have a plan but in the meantime are continuing their regular patrols.

Anticipating a drawn-out death watch, Miami-Dade County officials deactivated their emergency operations center yesterday evening, 18 hours after going on partial alert. They plan to reactivate the center when Castro dies or when "the situation in Cuba" requires it.

"For now, there is no reason to keep key personnel around the clock," said spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez. "The police can handle the celebrations and demonstrations with command centers."

Police were visible across the county. About two dozen Miami police vehicles were gathered in the Orange Bowl's parking lot. Officers also patrolled busy streets in Hialeah and Miami's Calle Ocho on foot.

Dressed in jeans, two undercover officers stood near the front door of the Versailles, sipping cafe and keeping an eye on the revelers.

"We don't expect any trouble," one said.

Standing outside El Pub, another Calle Ocho landmark, Ignacio Remedios, 77, seemed lost in thought as, eyes closed, he listened to patriotic hymns blaring from a nearby car.

Six weeks ago, his wife of 54 years, Ernestina, died, making it impossible to fulfill the couple's vow to be buried in their homeland together.

"So many of us have died, and the devil still hasn't called him," he said of Castro.

Maya Bell writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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