A future without Fidel: in Little Havana, the party's started

President Castro may be 'stable' following surgery, but thousands of Cuban Americans are determined to celebrate what they see as the beginning of the end. David Usborne reports from Miami
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The aroma in Miami's Little Havana was not just of slow-burning cigars and thick coffee served at the counter of the Versailles Café where Cuban Americans come daily to trade political gossip and intrigue. It was the intoxicating smell of anticipation and hope - and, perhaps, of the silent fear of disappointment.

It was here on Calle Ocho - 8th Street - where Cuban American residents noisily gathered to wave flags and sound car horns on Monday night to celebrate news that Fidel Castro, after 47 years of rule in Cuba, had temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul Castro while he underwent critical stomach surgery.

If the crowds yesterday were mostly gone, the intensity of feeling about what may or may not be happening in Havana has not. There are 800,000 Cuban Americans in Miami and its surrounding area and they are looking across the Straits of Florida as if a Category 5 hurricane were coming. Most are aching for it to grow stronger and wreak drastic, benevolent change. They are desperate that it shouldn't peter out. "This is the happiest day of my life," cried 59-year-old Santiago Portal, a retired engineer who arrived at the Versailles in the full regalia of Havana in the free-wheeling pre-Castro days - a sharp but frayed white double-breasted suit, white patent leather shoes and floral red shirt, all saved from the days before he fled Cuba in 1966. "For 50 years, we have had no good news from Cuba. Now it has come."

In Havana, the government issued a new statement attributed to Castro yesterday, saying that his condition is stable. But some at the Versailles were so giddy that any notion that he may still be alive - let alone that he might fully recover - wasn't worth considering. "I know he is dead, 100 per cent," said Roberto Peres, firmly. Mr Peres is 58, and his father was a commandant in the Batista army before the Castro revolution.

Raul Hernandez Morales, 59, a Cuban American lawyer who fled Cuba in 1962 and fought for the United States in the Vietnam War, was at least a little more pragmatic about Castro's condition. In truth, he acknowledged, no one was yet in a position to know. "This is a Stalinist tyranny and the hospital is sealed. Only a psychic could know if Castro is riding a bicycle right now or if he is lying between four candles."

The same knife-edge distance between rumour and reality was governing the response of the many anti-Castro exile groups in Miami yesterday. "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. "I think they are just gaining time. For all we know, Castro may already be dead or critically ill."

The medical bulletin in Havana came in the form of a message from the 79-year-old President printed in a state-run newspaper, saying that the details of his condition had to remain a secret. "The most I can say is that the situation will remain stable for many days before a verdict can be given," it said. "The situation is stable but real progress on health needs time."

Uncertain what kind of tumult news of Castro's actual passing would bring to Calle Ocho and other parts of Miami, civic leaders in Florida have even instituted a free Castro hotline for residents in an effort to keep the wilder of the rumours - for instance that he has been dead for a week already - in check.

Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida, has spent the past 48 hours monitoring the situation and cautioning against the overheating of expectations. He played down talk of an early lifting of the US embargo against Cuba, for instance, in the event of a political transition, warning that the sanctions would remain until the country institutes the same freedoms common to most Western democracies.

The preoccupation of everyone - on the streets of Miami and in the offices of Jeb and, indeed, of his brother the President, George Bush - is not just what will happen next in Cuba, but also how quickly it will happen. There are plans in Washington, for instance, for an $80m fund to help smooth a democratic transition in Havana. The State Department envisages using the money to assist opposition groups, as well as helping to support the country's infrastructure, in everything from water supplies to the functioning of the police, in the event of a sudden political vacuum.

But if the US is set on influencing the kind of change that comes to Cuba, it is also anxious to avoid a renewed exodus of Cuban refugees to American soil. The Coast Guard has already been placed on alert but said yesterday that it has so far seen no sign of increased numbers of boats leaving the island.

"You don't want to have mass migration that creates the loss of life and creates tremendous hardships for local communities and for our state," Governor Bush said on Tuesday. "We've already seen what the impacts of mass migration are. Better to have an orderly process and a focus on the transition."

The traffic could, however, be the other way. Exile groups in Miami talk of joining dissidents on the island to resist the remnants of the regime when Castro dies. "We are preparing our boats and our planes to possibly send a contingency to Cuba, to unite with the internal movement," Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement in Miami, declared. "The big danger here is that Raul Castro tries to squash the dissident movement to send a clear message that there is no negotiating with him."

The Cuban American National Foundation has issued a similar communiqué. "We do have a strong message to people in a position of power inside of Cuba who have a genuine and transparent interest in a peaceful non-violent transition to democracy: that they are not alone and that they have our support," said Alfredo Mesa, its spokesman in Miami.

A common theme at the coffee counter and in the pronouncements this week from all the Cuban exile groups is that whatever plan the regime might have for engineering a seamless succession to brother Raul Castro - with no end to the Fidel doctrines or to the repression of Cuba - cannot be allowed to happen.

The Florida authorities, however, are warning anyone contemplating going to Cuba to assist with the resistance or possibly even to fight for the island's freedom to think again. "Don't attempt to leave," said Amos Rojas of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "If there is a problem on the island, the Coast Guard will blockade it, and we're not going to let people go from here."

But setting foot on Cuba - if not now, then soon - is suddenly on the minds of hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans in southern Florida, many of whom have spent many decades of exile in America. "If Castro dies, there will be no Cubans left in Miami," declared the white-suited Mr Portal with an extravagant gesture of his hands.

This is a little dramatic and in any case, not everyone agrees. A Cuban American nurse drinking coffee under the shade of the Versailles' plastic awning, who worked for years as an anaesthesiologist for Castro and in 1995 managed to flee after being sent to practise in Venezuela and Guyana, said yesterday that the pain of escaping was such that he could not imagine going back, even after Castro is gone. "Never," he said.

More common, however, is the sentiment expressed by the lawyer, Mr Hernandez Morales, who lived for many years in Washington State before moving to Florida. "I will go back, because it's my country," he said, a youthful passion glimmering in his age-clouded blue eyes. "Cuba is my country and I am tired of being a foreigner for so many years."

More startlingly, he says that if the call is given for Cuban Americans to go to the island to fight and risk their lives for the cause of freedom, he will be ready - this from a man almost in his seventh decade with five children in the United States. "I hope it doesn't happen, but I would take up arms if I needed to. I fought for the United States, so I can fight for my country too," he says.

For now, all that he and his many friends at the Versailles Café can do is come back today, drink some more Cuban coffee and wait for the next news from Havana. In the past two days, they have at last tasted the fantasy they have lived with for nearly five decades.

For the first time, the day that their homeland is finally freed from the dictatorship of Fidel Castro seems to be becoming a reality. But even if no one yesterday was prepared to admit it out loud, there was still no way of saying for sure if this was history that was happening or just an early tease.