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Posted July 17, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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BY J.J. HYSELL | keysnews.com

It is a well-circulated rumor that swells each time the communist leader of Cuba disappears for more than a day or two. “Fidel Castro is in the hospital!” “Fidel is in a coma!” “Fidel is dead!”

Phone lines light up from Miami to the Florida Keys until the gossip is halted by the truth—Castro is alive and well, most likely delivering one of his trademark epic speeches to the masses.

The tall tale sprouted new life this past weekend as talk of Castro’s recent absence from the limelight sparked questions. The chatter ceased Wednesday morning when television news and print wire reports told of Castro, who will turn 77 Aug. 13, speaking at length to his cabinet, showing no signs of ill health.

But the prospect of the Cuban leader’s departure from the helm—in whatever manner—is on the minds of area leaders and law enforcement officials. How would the potentially volatile situation be handled just 90 miles away from the Caribbean country’s capital?

“There is a plan in place,” Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley said. “Just as there is a hurricane preparedness plan for our area, there is an open Cuba plan.”

Weekley said law enforcement agencies and military groups are more privy to the details of that plan, much of which is sensitive information. But the bottom line appears to be that Key West, in the shadow of Miami, would be greatly affected by a change in Cuban government.

The main concern would be safety, said Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

Ros-Lehtinen said a Naval blockade around Cuba to protect its borders—both from departures and arrivals—likely would be initiated. A worst-case scenario is a scene rivaling that of the historic Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, when more than 120,000 Cubans fled the island over a six-month period.

“I am certain the federal government will step up to the plate and make sure that doesn’t happen,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Cuban-Americans hoping to reach relatives they haven’t seen in years, opportunists looking to make claims and travelers seeking first looks at a new democracy are some of the anticipated adventurers who might think of taking to the sea and air immediately following an alteration in government. But officials warn that trying to reach an unsettled foreign country in a time of disarray is a bad idea.

“There would be confiscation of boats if people were to take such action,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Weekley expressed concern about the impact on Key West.

“Something like that could have a major impact on the economy, depending on the time of year that it would occur.” Weekley also pointed out the extra manpower that might be necessary for such an emergency situation, including the use of Key West Police officers and Coast Guard Group Key West.

Also of concern—albeit on a lighter note—would be the eruption of celebrations by anti-Castro factions. Ros-Lehtinen said contingency plans also have focused on how to best handle crowd control and massive impromptu festivities that could affect traffic.

“The plans could include roping off certain sections of South Florida to allow for joyous celebrations,” she said. “There could be designated places; for instance, the Orange Bowl, so that the whole city [of Miami] wouldn’t be paralyzed.”

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