Published January 13, 2015
When Gladys Morales heard that Fidel Castro had temporarily given up power, she woke her 70-year-old mother to celebrate with other Cuban exiles dancing in the streets.
The women, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1970, cheered Castro's illness in this heavily Cuban-American city northwest of Miami as if the communist leader many consider a ruthless dictator already were dead -- which many hoped was true.
• Related story: Castro Temporarily Gives Brother Power Due to Illness
"The first thing I thought of when I heard about Fidel is that I only wish my Luis was here to see this," Mirta Morales said of her husband, who died in April 2004. "He would have been here with us, laughing and celebrating with his people."
• Related story: Castro's Illness Worse Than Previous Ailments
South Florida's Cuban-American community of about 650,000 is the largest segment of the state's fast-growing Hispanic community and its influence is felt across Florida. Crowds of cigar-smoking, pot-banging, cheering celebrants took to the streets waving Cuban flags late Monday and into early Tuesday.
"My first reaction was disbelief. My second reaction was hope," said Armando Tellez, who sat on the hood of his red truck watching as hundreds of cars clogged the streets of Hialeah. "This is a singular event in Cuba's history because there has never been anything that has given the people so much hope."
• Related story: Timeline: Cuba Under Castro
Officials said Tuesday there were no arrests but the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operation Center raised its operations to level 2 status, monitoring the situation and activating a rumor control hot line.
Coast Guard officials said they were on standby but reported no significant increase in activity in the Florida Straits during the night. U.S. officials have long had plans in place to head off any possible mass exodus from Cuba by sea in case that the government suddenly opened the island's borders as occurred in 1980 and 1995.
The announcement that Castro had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding said he had transferred power to his brother Raul.
The transition of power would reshape Cuban-American politics, said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University.
"In Miami, this is a political earthquake," Moreno said. "The Cuban-Americans are going to be pressuring their political officials. There's going to be a lot of pressure on Cuban-American elected officials to deliver."
Others, however, said they weren't ready to celebrate because the transition to Castro's brother Raul Castro would have little effect on the Cuban government's policies.
"Raul Castro will give the Cuban people nothing but business as usual," said David Sandoval, 28, lead singer of the Cuban-American funk band Delexilio and a New York City lawyer.
"It is only through nonviolent, democratic elections that a legitimate government and meaningful change can take hold in Cuba."
White House spokesman Peter Watkins said the administration was monitoring the situation. "We can't speculate on Castro's health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba's freedom," Watkins said.
The Cuban population in Florida is hardly unified, with hard-line exiles urging a tough stance against Castro and a younger generation of Cubans who were born in the United States -- or raised here most of their lives -- more likely to support engagement with Cuba.
In Hialeah, 34-year-old Orlando Pino steered his bicycle with one hand and waved a Cuban flag with the other. He said he wants to return to Cuba when Castro dies.
"There's a lot of people in Cuba who are home crying," said Pino, who arrived in the Miami area two years on a religious visa. "There's a lot of confusion over there because many people loved him.
"It's all a process for the Cuban people to wake up from their sleep. It's a lot of time under one person and they have become accustomed to that, good or bad."
Miami-Dade College sociology professor Juan Clark, who specializes in Cuban affairs, said he was surprised that the announcement of Castro's illness was done so publicly.
Clark noted that when Castro had a well-publicized tumble in 2004, shattering a kneecap and breaking an arm, he did not delegate power to his brother.
"Either he is in very, very serious condition or he may have already passed away. They might well be preparing gradually for that succession that they want to take place," Clark said.