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Will Castro's death bring chaos or calm?

Unsure how to prepare, officials hope for a measured response but fear a deadly migration out of and into Cuba.

February 11, 2007|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Ramon Saul Sanchez has put out the call: "Get ready. We're going to Cuba."

Sanchez, 52, the founder of a Miami group called the Democracy Movement, or Movimiento Democracia, has led flotillas toward Cuba's territorial water to protest the regime of Fidel Castro and what he believes is deeply flawed U.S. policy toward the island nation.

When Castro dies, he said, he plans to sail for the island with generators, medicine and other supplies -- and bring word that "freedom is on its way."

Military leaders, law enforcement officials and aid organizations preparing for the Cuban leader's death are hoping for a calm and measured response on both sides of the Florida Straits.

They are well aware, however, that Castro's death could lead to a turbulent series of events -- even an international incident, they fear, if Sanchez and other Cuban American leaders in South Florida sail for the island in large numbers.

Knowing the passion that Castro evokes -- passion that could overwhelm even the best planning -- officials are unsure whether they should be preparing for chaos or calm, or something in between.

"We've been waiting a long time for this. Realistically, anything can happen," said Andy S. Gomez, an assistant provost at the University of Miami and a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. Gomez has briefed federal officials on the spectrum of events that could unfold after Castro's death.

It has been six months since Castro, 80, underwent emergency intestinal surgery and provisionally ceded power to Raul Castro, 75, his brother and defense minister. Recent footage released by the Cuban government appeared to show that Fidel Castro had regained strength and weight. But reports that he is in "grave" condition, coupled with U.S. intelligence officials' grim appraisals of his health, have prompted authorities to put preparations in overdrive.

Officials in South Florida believe a composed response to Castro's death is most likely.

In that scenario, Raul Castro would seamlessly maintain control through a blend of modest economic reform and political tactics. On the island, he would be seen as the face of a brighter future, giving Cubans little reason to flee. In Florida, Cuban Americans would demonstrate and celebrate -- the largest event would probably be held at the 80,000-person-capacity Orange Bowl -- but would generally heed calls for restraint.

But upheaval is possible. In what officials perceive as the worst case, the Cuban government would collapse, prompting a dangerous mass migration out of and into Cuba. Cubans fleeing the island and Cuban Americans trying to get in from Florida could meet in the middle of the Straits, creating a crisis that could overwhelm rescuers and further erode the stability of Latin America.

"You want to plan. You don't want to have to put the plans in motion," said Sam Tidwell, chief executive of the American Red Cross of Greater Miami & the Keys and a leader in the effort to prepare for Castro's death.

Law enforcement officials are holding tabletop exercises of emergency plans and laying the groundwork to restrict the sale of gasoline in Florida or to close marinas so Cuban Americans can't make a run for the island. On Spanish-language radio stations, authorities are pleading with Cuban Americans to stay home.

Military officials believe that if American activists try to get to Cuba, they will disrupt the official response to Castro's death and perhaps put more strain on relations between Cuba and the United States.

If even a single Cuban American group tried to make its way to the island, "it would be a very serious risk," said Marielena A. Villamil, a member of the American Red Cross board of directors and an owner of an economic consulting firm in Coral Gables, Fla.

"We don't know what the situation will be in Cuba," said Villamil, who is also involved in preparations for Castro's death. "Would they be welcomed with open arms? Or with arms -- weapons?"

A network of aid groups, meanwhile, is preparing to help reunite families, coordinate donations and care for refugees in the event of an exodus from Cuba to the United States.

Delicate tasks could lie ahead in Florida.

For instance, some officials have debated whether Castro's death could force them to alter the "wet-foot, dry-foot" immigration policy, which typically repatriates Cubans interdicted at sea but generally allows those who reach U.S. soil to stay.

If the policy were altered, the federal government could find itself detaining refugees who made it to the United States, Tidwell said. At that point, the Red Cross, founded as a neutral caregiver, would be prohibited by its bylaws from providing any assistance, he said.

"We can be helpful in places where people are being processed but not where people are being detained," Tidwell said. "If there are political decisions being made -- if people are no longer free to go -- we pull out."

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