Fla. Cubans cheer news of Castro temporarily relinquishing power


A woman holding a sign in Spanish that translates to "Liberty for Cuba," joins revelers as they cruise the streets of Hialeah, Fla., in the early morning hours of Aug. 1, after hearing the news about Fidel Castro's health. Cuban officials announced the head of Cuba had temporarily relinquished presidential power to his brother Raul due to intestinal illness.

The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 10:59 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 10:59 a.m.

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.

Facts

Reaction in Florida to the news of Fidel Castro's illness

"Weve been through this before. So we don't know whether this really is the beginning of the end. But let's hope it is. Let's hope it's over for the dictator. Then we can move forward towards a free and democratic Cuba," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

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The U.S. embargo should only be lifted when Cuba "allows the same basic freedoms that all people in our hemisphere have: the right to move, the right to organize if they want to in a labor union, the right to dissent, the right to pray to their creator," Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla.

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"Personally I don't think there's anyone else in Cuban government that can hold that regime together," Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

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"We are calling right now the attention of the international community and all the Cubans that they don't lose focus on political prisoners and human rights activist because they are a target of attacks by state security police," Janisset Rivero, executive director of the Cuban Democratic Directorate.

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"For us it was so illuminating because it's our homeland, our golden land, where one day we want to be able to come and go as we please, and live like we once did," Luis Calles, 67, a Cuban exile who was at Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.

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"Basically, we are seeing what the Cuban government is saying but we don't know if that is true. Cuba is a totalitarian regime," Ninoska Perez Castellon of the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban Liberty Council

When word spread late Monday that the 79-year-old Cuban president was temporarily ceding power to his younger brother Raul Castro, South Florida streets flowed with packed cars and people banging pots and pans. While car horns still blared Tuesday, some now cautioned that celebrations may have come too soon.

"Raul is worse than Fidel," said Maria Bencomo Page, 52. "He is a worse person in every way. This guy, hope and pray, that he does not take over as such. Raul will not be able to fill Fidel's shoes, not with the people of Cuba, not with the outsiders."

Bencomo worried that the situation could get worse before it gets better, especially if Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez-Roque and Parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon seek more power.

"The worse case scenario is that these people, the inner circle make any kind of power grab," Bencomo said.

Eric Hernandez, 33, a writer for Telemundo, also was worried about what would happen on the island in the coming days. Hernandez said he had planned to return to Cuba on Friday to visit his father for the first time in five years but canceled the trip.

Hernandez said he believed Castro may already 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," Hernandez said, adding that he worried authorities there might think he was an infiltrator and detain him.

Fidel 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.

South Florida's Cuban-American community numbers about 800,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is the largest segment of Florida's fast-growing Hispanic community and its influence is felt across the state.

Among the cigar-smoking, pot-banging, cheering crowds waving Cuban flags late Monday and early Tuesday was a group 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.

Reaction from Cuban-Americans wasn't limited to Miami. In Union City, N.J., resident Mario Sanchez said the day Cuban people have been waiting for could be near.

"It's good if he dies," said Sanchez, 43, a mechanic who was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. in 1980. "And then the people will be free."

"Raul Castro will give the Cuban people nothing but business as usual," said David Sandoval, 28, a New York City attorney and lead singer of the Cuban-American funk band Delexilio. "It is only through nonviolent, democratic elections that a legitimate government and meaningful change can take hold in Cuba."

In Tampa's heavily Cuban-American Ybor City, Gladys Sequeira-Garcia, event coordinator at the historic Cuban Club, 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."

White House spokesman Peter Watkins said the administration was watching the situation closely.

"We can't speculate on Castro's health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba's freedom," Watkins said.

Earlier on Monday, President Bush spoke of the future of the island during a visit to Miami before Castro's illness was announced.

"If Fidel Castro were to move on because of natural causes, we've got a plan in place to help the people of Cuba understand there's a better way than the system in which they've been living under," he told WAQI-AM Radio Mambi, a Spanish-language radio station. "No one knows when Fidel Castro will move on. In my judgment, that's the work of the Almighty."

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade County's Emergency Operation Center raised its operations to level 2 status, monitoring the situation. Officials said there were no arrests during the overnight celebrations.

Coast Guard officials said they were on standby, awaiting further orders but that there was no significant increase in activity in the Florida Straits on Monday or Tuesday. 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.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said that she and other members of Congress will discuss issues related to Castro's illness at a previously scheduled meeting at White House on Wednesday focusing on bringing democracy to Cuba.

"Any day without Fidel Castro is a good day. But I think it's too early to tell what the impact will be," said Ros-Lehtinen, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee.

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.

Fidel's loyal brother Raul

Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro is President Fidel Castro's staunchly loyal younger brother and his designated successor. At 75 and five years younger than Fidel, Raul is far less charismatic than his brother though far more radical.

Monday night, Fidel temporarily relinquished his presidential powers to Raul, telling Cubans in a letter read on television that he underwent surgery. The Cuban leader said he had suffered gastrointestinal bleeding, apparently due to stress from recent public appearances in Argentina and Cuba.

As first vice president of the Council of State, Cuba's supreme governing body, Raul is legally designated to assume his brother's role as president of the council in the event of "absence, illness or death."

Three weeks after taking power in January 1959, Castro named Raul his successor, telling supporters: "Behind me are others more radical than I."

He officially designated Raul as his successor at a Communist Party congress in October 1997, saying "Raul is younger than I, more energetic than I. He can count on much more time."

As head of Cuba's armed forces, Raul has been deeply involved in Cuba's military involvement in Angola and Ethiopia during the 1970s _ as well as with the military's successful peacetime efforts to help rescue Cuba's economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Although usually working behind the scenes, Raul briefly assumed a higher profile during the seven-month fight to return Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez to his homeland from Florida in 2000.

While Fidel headed up many of the mass protests in Havana, it was the mustachioed Raul, dressed in his olive green uniform and a full head shorter than his brother, leading tens of thousands of chanting, flag-waving citizens in the provinces.

In one rare interview in early 2001, Raul spoke with unusual frankness about his older brother's eventual death and encouraged the United States to make peace with Cuba while Fidel was still alive.

"I am among those who believe that it would be in imperialism's interest to try, with our irreconcilable differences, to normalize relations as much as possible during Fidel's life," Raul said in the interview with state television. Later, he said, "it will be more difficult," implying he would be harder to deal with.

Raul, a political hard-liner, belonged to a Communist youth group even before the revolution. The elder Castro didn't publicly embrace socialism until 1961.

But on the economic front, he showed signs of flexibility.

As defense minister, Raul has overseen some of Cuba's most important experiments with limited market-style reforms. Military units produced and sold food at free markets and the military ran an important tourism company, Gaviota.

He also expressed interest in China's version of free-enterprise socialism during a November 1997 visit.

In 1962 he became deputy prime minister and in 1972 first deputy prime minister, behind Fidel.

Like his brother, Raul has been suspicious of the United States and at a September 1960 rally denounced the U.S. Embassy as "a cave of spies."

In a July 1962 visit to the Soviet Union, Raul was given a promise of Soviet missiles _ a development that led to the U.S.-Soviet missile crisis of October 1962 which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Yet Raul made occasional conciliatory moves toward the United States. In 1964, he said he was willing to hold talks with the Americans "even on the moon."

U.S. has long sought end to Castro regime

The Bush administration, which has made no secret of its desire to see the end of Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba, said it is closely monitoring the situation in the island nation with the deterioration of the elderly leader's health.

"We can't speculate on Castro's health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba's freedom," said White House spokesman Peter Watkins.

On Monday, before Castro's illness was announced, President Bush was in Miami and spoke of the island's future.

"If Fidel Castro were to move on because of natural causes, we've got a plan in place to help the people of Cuba understand there's a better way than the system in which they've been living under," he told WAQI-AM Radio Mambi, a Spanish-language radio station. "No one knows when Fidel Castro will move on. In my judgment, that's the work of the Almighty."

The president apparently was referring to a recently updated plan that calls for diplomacy enlisting Cuban citizens and other nations to demand a new government after Castro dies. The plan, released last month by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, recommends that the United States spend $80 million over two years for food and other aid to Cuba to encourage multiparty elections, free markets and democratic institutions.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a member of the House International Relations Committee who has long opposed Castro, said even a temporary relinquishment of power by the dictator is "a great day for the Cuban people and for their brothers and sisters in exile."

"Fidel Castro has only brought ruin and misery to Cuba so if he is incapacitated, even for a short period of time, it is a marvelous moment for the millions of Cubans who live under his iron fisted rule and oppressive state machinery," she said. "I hope this is the beginning of the end for his despised regime."

The State Department declined comment, but the United States has been open about the fact it is prepared to go to some lengths to ensure that the communist system Castro created goes out with him.

It is official U.S. policy to "undermine" Cuba's planned succession from Castro to his brother Raul, to whom Fidel Castro temporarily transferred power Monday, citing an operation over an intestinal problem and internal bleeding.

The transfer marked the first time that Castro, two weeks away from 80th birthday, had relinquished power in 47 years of absolute rule.

Watkins, the White House spokesman, said the administration was "monitoring the situation," though he did not provide details. Cuba itself has disclosed little about the dictator's circumstances beyond Monday's statement about Castro's operation.

Castro, who took control of Cuba in 1959, resisted repeated U.S. attempts to oust him and survived communism's demise elsewhere.

Cuba has been under a U.S. financial embargo since 1961, two years after the Castro came to power with the ousting of then-President Fulgencio Batista.

A look at Fidel Castro's life

NAME: Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz.

TITLE: President of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, Commander in Chief of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. World's longest-ruling head of government, and leader of one of the world's last five communist states.

BIRTHDATE: Officially born Aug. 13, 1926, in Cuba's Oriente province, although some say he was born a year later.

EDUCATION: Attended Roman Catholic schools and the University of Havana, where he received law and social science degrees.

BEFORE THE REVOLUTION: Castro launched his revolutionary fight with a July 26, 1953, attack on a military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. He was arrested and freed under an amnesty. He traveled to Mexico to form a rebel army, and returned to Cuba with his followers aboard a small yacht. Most were killed or captured, but Castro and a small group escaped into the eastern mountains to establish a rebel stronghold and seized power when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled New Year's Day 1959.

AFTER THE REVOLUTION'S TRIUMPH: Castro emerged as head of the new government and quickly gained nearly absolute power. All American businesses were eventually expropriated and Cuba was declared a socialist state in April 1961, on the eve of the disastrous U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The United States cut all trade with Cuba as the island allied with the Soviet Union, leading to the October 1962 missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. For three decades, Cuba was a Soviet ally and remained alienated from the United States after Eastern communism collapsed.

FAMILY: Married Mirta Diaz-Balart in 1948 and their son, Fidel Felix Castro Diaz-Balart, was born in 1949. The couple divorced in 1955. Although Castro never confirmed that he remarried, he reportedly wed former schoolteacher Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he has five sons. He reportedly had several other children out of wedlock.

QUOTE: "Homeland or death! Socialism or death! We shall overcome!"

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