Excitement Among Cuban Exiles in U.S. Spreads Over Castro's Illness

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The calls to Radio Mambi came from as far away as Europe: Cuban exiles were euphoric over Fidel Castro's illness and wanted to share their joy with the AM station known as the voice of Miami's Cuban community.

Disregarding the official reports from Cuba, many of Radio Mambi's listeners were ready Tuesday to declare Castro dead, 47 years after he took power. Some pointed to Castro's unprecedented handover to his brother Raul as evidence that he is either already gone or nearly so, and they excitedly planned to go home.

"I don't care if they say how he died. I'm already celebrating and I have my suitcases ready for me to go," one unidentified caller told Radio Mambi, adding that she was skipping work to revel in the news.

The calls echoed the opinions heard on Miami's streets. Many of Miami-Dade County's 800,000 Cuban-Americans have awaited Castro's demise. Many Cuban-Americans view him as a ruthless dictator who forced them, their parents or grandparents from their home after he seized power in a revolution in 1959.

Related story: Timeline: Cuba Under Castro

Castro issued a statement Tuesday night saying the operation was serious but that his condition was "stable" and that "as for my spirits, I feel perfectly fine." The statement, read on Cuba's state-run television, did not provide any details about his intestinal illness, which was first announced Monday.

Cuban-Americans in Miami said the statement sounded like government propaganda.

"They know we are celebrating over here. 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.

Mirta Sotolongo, 54, said the statement was essentially meaningless.

"He's not going to return to power. I consider that he's dead and if he's not dead today, he will be dead tomorrow and if not, his days are still numbered," she said.

About 75 people gathered at midday outside the Versailles Cuban restaurant, waving Cuban flags and honking horns. Cuban-Americans elsewhere, from Tampa's Ybor City to Union City, N.J., rejoiced.

Authorities reported no problems or arrests Tuesday related to the celebrations. Miami-Dade County's Emergency Operations Center activated a rumor control line that received more than 500 calls by midmorning, most inquiring about Castro's health or street congestion and closures.

U.S. and Florida officials have long had plans in place to avert any mass exodus from Cuba in case the Havana government suddenly opened its borders. There is also concern that Cuban exiles might attempt to migrate in the opposite direction across the Florida Straits to return to their homeland or pick up family members.

The Coast Guard and other Homeland Security Department agencies were on standby but reported no significant increase in activity Tuesday in the Florida Straits.

At Radio Mambi, the nine telephone lines that host Lourdes D'Kendall monitored Tuesday rang nonstop. She could do nothing else but take call after call — each from an anti-Castrist eager to share their happiness over his reported illness, and their hopes for quick confirmation of his death.

D'Kendall tried to dispel unconfirmed information. Speaking in an even pace, she also tried to soothe the emotions of her audience.

"We have every right to celebrate. ... But we must be very careful not to commit any mistake," she said. "We are very impassioned, but we must set passion aside."

One caller said: "Never have I wished for the death of anyone. But I hope he suffers in a vegetative state."

D'Kendall, who left Cuba more than 40 years ago as a child, said she can understand their emotions.

"They believe he's dead because this is what they have been waiting for a long time," she said.

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