Miami — Joyous celebration in Miami about news that an ailing Fidel Castro temporarily had ceded power gave way Tuesday to rampant speculation among Cuban exiles: Is Castro already dead? What will happen in Cuba after he is gone? Is this just a trick?
"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, an anti-Castro exile group. "I think they are just gaining time. For all we know, Castro may already be dead or critically ill."
Talk radio stations devoted nearly all their airtime to the Castro story, and government leaders set up a hot line to keep rumors in check. But in a city where Castro has loomed large for more than a generation, many of Miami-Dade County's 800,000 Cuban-Americans long have dreamed of the day his communist rule would come to an end.
Most Cuban-Americans view Castro as a ruthless dictator who forced them, their parents or grandparents from their home after he seized power in a revolution in 1959.
"It's our homeland, our golden land, where one day we want to be able to come and go as we please, and live like we once did," said Luis Calles, a math teacher who came to the United States in 1994.
Castro issued a statement Tuesday night saying his condition was "stable" and that he felt "perfectly fine." The statement, read on Cuba's state-run television, provided no details about his intestinal illness.
Cuban-Americans in Miami said the statement sounded like government propaganda.
"They are just saying that. They are covering up the truth because they can't take an uproar of people within the island," said Cari Gonzalez, 26, whose parents came from Cuba in 1980.
A day earlier, reports that Castro had temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raul, because of a serious intestinal ailment led a pot-banging, cigar-smoking, flag-waving crowd to take to the streets of Miami's Little Havana.
The crowds were smaller Tuesday but no less fervent, with about 75 people gathered at midday outside the Versailles Cuban restaurant, waving Cuban flags and honking horns. Vendors sold small U.S. and Cuban flags to passing motorists for $7 each.
"The long-awaited day of a Cuba without Castro may be approaching," said U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. in 1962. "Our hope and purpose should now be for a true moment of change, not a transfer from one dictator to another."
The festive atmosphere was tempered by the understanding among many Cuban-Americans that Raul Castro harbors the same views as his brother and has been in firm control of the island's military. Jorge Alonso, 78, said he expected true change to take 20 years or more.
"The change has to come from within Cuba. It's not going to come from the United States," Alonso said, playing dominos and drinking Cuban coffee at a Miami park. "There will be bloodshed in Cuba because there is a lot of hate there. It's been 47 years of suffering."
U.S. and Florida officials have long had plans to avert an exodus from Cuba if the Havana government suddenly opened its borders. There is also concern that Cuban exiles might attempt to cross the Florida Straits in the opposite direction to return to their homeland or pick up family members.
Most experts and political figures agreed that immediate radical change is unlikely and predicted that Cuban-Americans would not rush to return there.
"It doesn't mean that everyone's going to be home next month, moving back into their old houses and so forth," said Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. "It may bring a more complicated situation than they already have. With Castro, you knew where you stood."