By Scott Gold | LA Times
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 u2;014 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 u2;014 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 u2;014 passion that could overwhelm even the best planning u2;014 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 u2;014 the largest event would probably be held at the 80,000-person-capacity Orange Bowl u2;014 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 u2;014 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.”
The bulk of preparations in the U.S. for Castro’s death aims to ensure that is not an issue — by preventing any mass migration.
Authorities are planning extensive water patrols to stop boaters trying to reach the United States. Most refugees would be returned to Cuba, either to a port or to Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. naval base, where military officials would house them in large tents or other temporary structures until they could return home.
Communication, coordination between government agencies, and intelligence inside Cuba, among other factors, are much improved since officials were caught off-guard by the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought an estimated 125,000 Cubans to Florida.
“We’ve learned quite a bit,” said Miami-Dade County Assistant Fire Chief Carlos J. Castillo. “I don’t see anything approaching Mariel.”
Authorities believe Raul Castro would probably view a large exodus after his brother’s death as a discrediting sign of dissent within his regime, and would probably deploy the military to prohibit it. They also believe that the response to Castro’s death could be muted because the transition between the brothers has brought little sign of unrest.
Through intelligence sources, U.S. officials are monitoring signs of boat building in Cuba and have found no evidence of an increase, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil.
“The passing of Fidel Castro, in and of itself, is not going to create a mass migration,” he said.
Others disagree. Some involved in the preparations worry that there won’t be enough boats to police the Florida Straits. Others question whether Raul Castro has the clout or the charisma to hold Cuba together.
Gomez, of the University of Miami, predicts that 500,000 people will head for Florida within a year of Castro’s death.
“We do not have the infrastructure to handle that kind of migration,” he said. “You will see a large humanitarian crisis.”
Over lunch in Miami’s Little Havana, Ramon Saul Sanchez outlined his group’s plans. A businessman has donated the use of 400 feet of dock space on the Miami River, he said, from which Sanchez plans to launch boats toward Cuba, including a ferry that can carry 50 passengers to the island, as well as 20 tons of cargo.
He has two cargo planes on call and is amassing supplies at a large storage space, he said.
Sanchez believes Cuba’s government may collapse after Castro dies. With the communist government in control of so many functions, such as food distribution, that could mean a collapse of civic structure, Sanchez said.
Therefore, he said, the only way to avoid a migration from Cuba is to go to the island immediately after Castro’s death, against the wishes of both nations’ militaries and government leaders, with supplies and a message of hope.
“What we intend to do helps the U.S. interest, because it diminishes the chance of a mass exodus to the United States,” he said.
“We have moral leverage, and we intend to use it.”