Volatile Miami Awaits Outcome of Castro Crisis

Thousands of Cuban Americans in South Florida await more news about Fidel Castro. U.S. authorities are preparing for a possible exodus of Cubans headed to Florida — and Cuban Americans headed to their homeland.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In Miami, reports that Fidel Castro had handed over power to his brother hit like a blockbuster. Local newscasts broke into regular programming last night to cover spontaneous celebrations that broke out across the city.

A day later, NPR's Greg Allen reports the celebrations continue, even while analysts and Cuban-American leaders warn that some of the excitement may be premature.

GREG ALLEN: The party started last night, and today on Miami's Calle Ocho, it was still going strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING HORNS AND CHEERING)

ALLEN: The Versailles restaurant in the heart of Little Havana has been a busy place. Yesterday, President Bush had breakfast here with Cuban-American business leaders. Then several hours later, the news broke from Cuba that President Fidel Castro was temporarily handing power over to his brother, Raul.

Elsewhere it's a headline, but for hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans in South Florida, it looks like something for which they've waited nearly 50 years. Lucy Auguste(ph) was out celebrating last night and today was back outside the Versailles, cheering and waving at passing cars, horns honking with Cuban flags fluttering. She left Cuba when she was three and says that all she knows is the U.S.A.

LUCY AUGUSTE: I also feel for - I have family, like aunts and uncles and cousins, that I don't know that live on the island, and they're so oppressed, everyone over there. So it's just so nice to know that 47 years later, that I'll be alive to see something changing over there.

ALLEN: Today the celebrations were fewer and smaller. But a sign of how closely south Florida is tied to Cuba, the Dade County Commission announced it was putting its Stage Two emergency plans into effect. The Coast Guard also said it was watching for signs that Cubans were taking advantage of the transition to launch a massive exodus. But even as they prepared, public officials like Dade County Commission Head Joe Martinez couldn't help but show their feelings.

JOE MARTINEZ: We're celebrating now the freedom of a country, and you have elderly people who right now have been waiting 40- something odd years for the possibility of returning home, seeing their families, and that possibility right now exists. The transitioning of power has been documented several times recently and that has been an indication that there's a possibility of his demise. And that is a hope of millions of people across the country.

ALLEN: A big reason for the enthusiasm here in the Cuban American community is that this is the first real sign that Castro may be losing his grip on power. Even so, many Cuban-American leaders and analysts warn the excitement may be premature. The director of Cuban American studies at the University of Miami, Jaime Suchlicki, says he expects there will be few changes in a Cuba under the control of Castro's brother, Raul. But for Cuban Americans, Suchlicki says the vendetta with Fidel Castro is personal.

JAIME SUCHLICKI: They see him as the cause of the suffering, the families divided, having to leave the island and come here. Some of them lost families, some of lost their property. So there is that kind of perception of Fidel Castro as the villain that has created all these problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ALLEN: In Little Havana, many Cuban Americans said they don't believe all the reports, and they think Fidel Castro is already dead. Others, like Lucy Auguste, admit some of the joy may be premature.

AUGUSTE: We're kind of weird. Everything that - it's just a little thing, we blow it up to really big thing. So we're just trying to show the community that we stand together, and my concern is - I was thinking this morning that if Cubans on the island will get together and like go out in masses, you know, masses like we're doing here in Miami and just show unity, because I believe there's strength in unity.

ALLEN: Looking around at the crowds gathered on Calle Ocho, Lucy Auguste said she believes it's that same kind of unity that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

NORRIS: And our coverage of the situation continues online. Among other things, you can find a timeline of key events in Fidel Castro's life. That's at NPR.org.

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