WASHINGTON – The Bush administration was caught by surprise when Cuban President Fidel Castro announced a temporary transfer of power due to illness, according to a U.S. senator who met with the president. And Republican senators began drafting legislation aimed at prodding the Communist nation toward democracy.
Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, met with Bush Tuesday at the White House.
"The president's comment was that everybody was caught by surprise, and we'll have to wait and see" what U.S. action is necessary, Bennett said. "I think all of us can say we had no idea this was coming."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and other GOP senators were preparing legislation that "takes advantage of the incapacitation of Fidel Castro to advance civil society-building measures and the transition to a democratic Cuba," according to a summary obtained by The Associated Press.
The measure, also sponsored by Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and John Ensign, R-Nev., would provide money for items including aid for political prisoners and their families, doctors, libraries and youth organizations, according to the document. It listed no dollar amounts, and did not specify at what point the money would be provided.
The House's three Cuban-American members, Republican Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his brother Mario and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, met Wednesday morning with members of the National Security Council before boarding a flight to Miami, where they were to brief reporters.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States had no independent information about Castro's health. "This is a pretty closed decision-making circle and it's very opaque as to what is actually going on," he said.
He said the U.S. government "stands ready" if the Cuban people want to make the transition to democracy but he did not say what the Bush administration would be prepared to do.
Besides no indications of Cubans fleeing en masse for the United States, there so far are no signs of unusual numbers of civilian boats headed to Cuba from the U.S., said Coast Guard Cmdr. Jeff Carter.
The Coast Guard, which routinely patrols the water between Cuba and Florida, has been closely watching for any increase of refugees following Castro's announcement this week that he had temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul in order to undergo surgery.
But "there is absolutely no indication" of a mass migration from Cuba, Carter said. "We're not seeing anything — nor are we seeing any going the other direction, from Florida."
According to a defense official, Navy ships are not yet moving closer to Cuba. One problem is Tropical Storm Chris in the eastern Caribbean, expected to become the first hurricane of the Atlantic season.
The Navy does have a large number of ships — from destroyers to frigates — in the general area, both at the Mayport Naval Station in Florida and the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. Those ships would be in range and ready to respond if the situation in Cuba changes, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials fear that post-Castro instability in Cuba could lead to a large-scale migration by Cubans to South Florida, similar to that in 1980 and 1994.
The Coast Guard has long had plans to deal with mass migrations from Cuba and other destinations by sea, but has not activated them in light of Castro's illness, Carter said. He said no additional ships, aircraft or personnel have been moved to the region since Castro stepped aside, and that the Coast Guard migration response plan has not yet been activated.