GWEN IFILL: Eight days ago, Cuba’s aging leader, Fidel Castro, handed over temporary power to his brother, Raul. Neither man has been seen in public since, stirring worry in some quarters and optimism in others. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports now from Miami on the preparations for a post-Castro Cuba.
JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: What began as a spontaneous celebration has turned into a nightly street party along one block of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Cuban-Americans are cheering what they hope is the imminent death of Cuban President Fidel Castro and showing their support for political change on the island nation.
Beyond this rally, talk of Castro’s health and Cuba’s future has been the hot topic among South Florida’s Cuban-Americans. One place to hear some of the discussion is Miami’s Maximo Gomez Park, where older Cuban exiles go for dominoes and camaraderie.
HENRY DIAZ, Cuban-American: Everybody is getting excited. Everybody want to see that guy dead, but nothing happened yet. That’s the problem, all right?
JEFFREY KAYE: A younger generation of Cuban-Americans is also caught up in the enthusiasm for a post-Castro era. Pedro Gonzalez wears his national pride on his shoulder, even though he’s American-born and has never stepped foot in Cuba.
So Castro dies, and then what do you?
PEDRO GONZALES, Cuban-American: I sell the house, the cars, the boat, everything, and go back.
JEFFREY KAYE: To what?
PEDRO GONZALES: To what? To great adventure, to great — I mean, my land, you know what I mean? I mean, my country, you know what I mean?
Cuba's future as a democracy
JEFFREY KAYE: Miami, home to an estimated one million Cuban-Americans, has long been a city whose culture and politics have moved to a Cuban beat, ever since the first wave of exiles arrived in 1959 following the Cuban revolution. It's a community that has long dreamed about and planned for a Cuba after Fidel Castro; that planning has generally assumed that a post-Castro Cuba would see significant change.
JORGE MAS SANTOS, Cuban-American National Foundation: I think it'll provide an opening to all of us whom are looking for a course of freedom and democracy for the Cuban people to take place. This is a great opportunity.
JEFFREY KAYE: Jorge Mas Santos is chairman of the 25-year-old Cuban-American National Foundation. The group's hard-line anti-Castro stance has long influenced U.S. policy towards Cuba.
JORGE MAS SANTOS: For the first time in 47 years, you have a transfer of power in Cuba. That symbol of the all everything who was Fidel Castro, I think that era is over. Irrespective of he's alive or he's dead or he's incapacitated, you know, Fidel Castro is the past.
And when you put that in the context of the Cuban exile community, it gives us an opportunity to be able to lend support to those brave men and women, not only of the opposition, but those who want to take Cuba on a course towards democracy for us to help them.
JEFFREY KAYE: Toppling Castro has been an obsession among Miami's many Cuban exile groups. On hearing the news that Fidel Castro had temporarily handed power to his brother, Raul, members of Alpha 66, one old-time paramilitary group, prepared anti-Castro propaganda tapes for intended broadcast into Cuba.
Another exile movement, the Democracy Movement, is preparing a boat to leave for Cuba if the political winds turn their way. Ramon Saul Sanchez is the group's leader.
RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ, Democracy Movement: If Fidel Castro is indeed dead, if the dissident movement calls out the people to demonstrate or the people come out to demonstrate, and conditions begin to be like in that direction, we will immediately organize here and conduct a flotilla, planes and vessels, to go into Cuba and land there peacefully with humanitarian aid to join the movement inside of Cuba.
JEFFREY KAYE: Other Cuban-Americans, such as attorney Nicolas Gutierrez, Jr., are planning legal strategies to reclaim properties and holdings seized by the Cuban government.
NICOLAS GUTIERREZ, Lawyer: My family owned two sugar mills, 15 cattle ranches, a rice mill, a coffee plantation and mill, a wholesale food distribution company, oil interests, hardware, a bank.
JEFFREY KAYE: Gutierrez says his father was one of the wealthiest men in Cuba. When political change comes to the island, he hopes to go there to recover his and his clients' properties or to receive compensation.
NICOLAS GUTIERREZ: For my own family, I plan to do whatever I can do to recover the assets that were stolen from us. I think I owe that to my dad and to my grandparents and great-grandparents. For my clients, professionally I will be involved in the same thing, because I represent well over 100 families and companies that lost significant properties in Cuba.
Change from within Cuba
JEFFREY KAYE: But the Cuban-American community is diverse, and not all have been caught up in celebrations or post-Castro planning.
Miami's Tinta y Cafe coffee shop has become a gathering place for a group of liberal Cuban-Americans who believe the U.S. should lift its economic embargo and normalize ties with Cuba. The coffee shop's owner, businesswoman Neli Santamarina, says too many Cuban-Americans are arrogant in their drive to bring change to the island.
NELI SANTAMARINA, Businesswoman: I think that change in Cuban cannot come from Miami. It cannot. It has to come from within, and all that I think Miami can and should do is to stand by, OK, and say, "Tell us what you need from us; how can we help you?"
JEFFREY KAYE: In Miami, thinking about what happens after Castro isn't confined to the Cuban-Americans. Local officials are concerned that political upheaval in Cuba will lead to a wave of refugees setting sail towards Florida, as they already do in small numbers. Officials also worry that, at the same time, Floridians will put their own boats into the water to pick up and rescue Cubans.
What's your worst fear?
ROBERT PALESTRANT, Office of Emergency Management: Worst fear is that something occurs -- here we are in hurricane season -- and that you actually have hundreds or thousands of people on the open seas or in the straits of Florida and a storm is coming. That would be a worst-case scenario.
JEFFREY KAYE: And people on the seas going in both directions, I presume?
ROBERT PALESTRANT: There would be tremendous loss of life.
JEFFREY KAYE: Robert Palestrant is the acting director of the Office of Emergency Management in Miami-Dade County. He says, just as they do when a hurricane is barreling down on south Florida, local officials plan to activate their emergency operations center in the event of political unrest in Cuba. The activation would be part of a secret multi-agency strategy known as "The Change in Caribbean Government Contingency Plan." Palestrant discussed the plan's outlines.
ROBERT PALESTRANT: We have to ramp up our hospitals. We have to ramp up the possibility of sheltering or maybe bringing more people in that maybe evacuated certain areas.
Preparation for change
JEFFREY KAYE: Miami officials are not the only ones preparing for a change of government in Cuba.
JAIME SUCHLICKI, Cuba Transition Project: Business-wise, many Cuban-Americans, as well as American companies, are dusting off plans for investment in Cuba, trading with Cuba.
JEFFREY KAYE: Jaime Suchlicki's Cuban Transition Project at the University of Miami is preparing for what he calls the reconstruction of Cuba after Castro. His center has received $3 million from the Bush administration.
JAIME SUCHLICKI: We've done some work with major multinational companies, American companies that want to get ready for the future of Cuba. And they've done marketing strategy, entrance strategy, and so on, vis-a-vis Cuba.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Suchlicki doesn't expect any immediate, dramatic change in Cuba, even with the death of Fidel Castro, and says that companies hoping to do business there will need to be cautious.
JAIME SUCHLICKI: Most of them will look initially to trading with Cuba rather than investing. Before they invest in Cuba, there's got to be a legal system, a currency that is convertible, all kinds of issues before people are going to take their money and put it in the island.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Bush administration's post-Castro plan is called "Assistance to a Free Cuba." The administration would send experts and advisers to assist a transitional government in Cuba. Last month, the president authorized $80 million to support dissidents there.
Even as the U.S. government and policy experts draft plans for the return of capitalism to Cuba and anti-Castro demonstrators wave flags and signs in Miami, Cuban officials claim Fidel Castro is recovering and communism on the island is not in jeopardy.