MIAMI -- Joyous celebration in Miami over news that an ailing Fidel Castro had temporarily ceded power gave way yesterday to rampant speculation among Cuban exiles: Is Castro already dead? What will happen in Cuba after he is gone? Is this just a trick?
``Basically, we are seeing what the Cuban government is saying, but we don't know if that is true," said Ninoska Perez of the Cuban Liberty Council, an anti-Castro exile group. ``I think they are just gaining time. For all we know, Castro may already be dead or critically ill."
Talk radio stations devoted nearly all their airtime to the Castro story, and government leaders set up a hot line to keep rumors in check. But in an area where Castro has loomed large for more than a generation, many of Miami-Dade County 's 800,000 Cuban-Americans have long dreamed of the day his communist rule would end.
Most Cuban-Americans view Castro as a ruthless dictator who forced them, their parents, or grandparents from their home after he seized power in a revolution in 1959.
``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," said Luis Calles, a math teacher who came to the United States in 1994.
Reports that Castro had temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raúl, because of a serious intestinal ailment led a pot-banging, cigar-smoking, flag-waving crowd to take to the streets of Miami's Little Havana on Monday night.
The crowds were smaller yesterday but no less fervent, with about 75 people gathered at midday outside the Versailles Cuban restaurant, waving Cuban flags and honking horns. Vendors sold small US and Cuban flags to passing motorists for $7 each.
``The long-awaited day of a Cuba without Castro may be approaching," said US Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican , who was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1962. ``Our hope and purpose should now be for a true moment of change, not a transfer from one dictator to another."
The festive atmosphere was tempered by the understanding among many Cuban-Americans that Raúl Castro harbors the same views as his brother and has been in firm control of the island's military. Jorge Alonso, 78, said he expected true change to take 20 years or more.
``The change has to come from within Cuba. It's not going to come from the United States," Alonso said, playing dominos and drinking Cuban coffee at a Miami park. ``There will be bloodshed in Cuba because there is a lot of hate there. It's been 47 years of suffering."
US and Florida officials have long had plans to avert an exodus from Cuba if the Havana government suddenly opened its borders. There is also concern that Cuban exiles might attempt to cross the Florida Straits in the opposite direction to return to their homeland or pick up family members.
Governor Jeb Bush said the plan is to prevent a mass movement of people that could create ``tremendous hardship and risk for people that can lose their lives."
Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, said it will be difficult for Raúl Castro to maintain his grip on power, which could lead to a bloody struggle for control.
``I would caution that rather than celebrate, we should consider how we can be of help to the people of the island, how we can do what we can to prevent bloodshed," Calzon said.