- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

12:59 p.m.

MIAMI (AP) — Celebration in the streets of Little Havana gave way today to speculation about the state of Fidel Castro’s health, and Miami-Dade County officials activated a rumor-control hot line.

Mr. Castro remained out of sight today 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 the Spanish-language television network Telemundo.

Related article: Ailing Castro gives up power

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 Mr. Castro’s illness late yesterday and this morning.

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 fortysomething years in the making,” said Joe Martinez, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, who was born in Cuba.

Officials said today that 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 the government suddenly opened the island’s borders.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said that 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,” Mr. Bush said today 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 this morning.

Miami-Dade College sociology professor Juan Clark, who specializes in Cuban affairs, said he was surprised that the announcement of Mr. Castro’s illness was done so publicly.

Mr. Clark noted that when Mr. 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,” Mr. Clark said.

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