- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

MIAMI — Scrawled in Spanish on the bathroom wall at Miami’s most famous Cuban eatery, Versailles, are several unflattering and unquotable descriptions of Fidel Castro.

Beneath the defamatory remarks about the communist leader who has ruled Cuba for 48 years reads simply “Castro es muerte” (Castro is dead) — a bit of wishful thinking shared by many in this city’s exile community.

Several such rumors have swept through Miami since Mr. Castro fell ill in July, only to be dashed with the release of videos showing a frail but indisputably living Cuban leader, most recently receiving a visit from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

That has not deterred Miami’s Cuban-Americans from planning and preparing for the dictator’s death. Some say they intend to return to the island, while others anticipate that thousands of Cuban refugees will stream into southern Florida.

The city of Miami said last week it would allow Cubans to use the city’s Orange Bowl stadium to hold a “Castro is dead” celebration, a notion some consider ghoulish. Miami officials have since scaled back plans for a citywide celebration, though the offer to use the stadium still stands.

“I don’t like the idea of celebrating someone’s death, even Fidel’s,” said Lily Fernandez, who sells traditional and contemporary Cuban tunes at a record store in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Others are preparing more pragmatically for the post-Castro Cuba. Business and legal leaders say they have already started working on ways to address a tangle of property-rights issues dating from the start of the Cuban revolution, when the communists seized and redistributed private land.

Along with land reform, economic and political changes are the chief concerns among those Cubans planning an eventual return home. None, though, expect those changes to occur quickly, even if Mr. Castro’s brother and designated successor Raul is quickly deposed and democratic elections are held.

“It takes time. A process like that takes years. It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a member of the Cuba Study Group.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers already is moving ahead with an attempt to change long-standing U.S. policies toward Cuba, particularly by easing travel restrictions and trade sanctions on most goods.

House Foreign Affairs Committee member Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, introduced a bill last week that would lift the restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba.

“Far from hastening democratic reforms, our current policy has given Fidel Castro a convenient scapegoat for his own regime’s failures,” said Mr. Flake, an avid critic of U.S. policy on Cuba.

“With the Cuban government taking new shape [under Raul Castro], we shouldn’t give the new leader the same excuses we’ve given the old one.”

The initiative is not being well-received by Cuban-American political leaders, who see it as an unwelcome concession to Mr. Castro and his brother.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, rejects Mr. Flake’s “scapegoat” theory, countering that tourist dollars from the United States would simply prop up the regime.

“That’s one of the really pathetic arguments” for lifting the travel ban, said Mr. Diaz-Balart, who plans to lead opposition to Mr. Flake’s measure.

“After almost 50 years of totalitarian dictatorship in Cuba, [Mr. Flake] won’t demand the release of all political prisoners and free elections … it’s really sad.”

The Cuban exiles, meanwhile, will continue to ponder the implications of Mr. Castro’s seemingly imminent death.

“I don’t know when it’s going to happen; only God knows,” said Manuela Gomez, a decades-long resident of Little Havana. “I just know it’s time for him and all the communists to go.”

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