Florida leaders wait, plan for a new day

Officials say news of the dictator's health problems adds urgency to their planning for the future of the state and Cuba.

Published August 2, 2006

There have been falls, dizziness and even a fainting spell.

So when word came that 79-year-old Cuban leader Fidel Castro underwent "complicated" intestinal surgery and had temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul, Florida's political leaders declared themselves cautiously optimistic but said full-scale celebrations of the leader's demise should wait.

"I'm optimistic because while we don't put anything past the Castro regime, this is unprecedented," said state Rep. Juan-Carlos "J.C." Planas, R-Miami.

"I feel for the thousands of Miami residents who suffered under Fidel Castro, and I hope and pray this is not something that gets their hopes up and causes them pain," Planas said.

Still, news of Castro's surgery has added urgency to what political leaders say they have been working on for only a couple of years now - comprehensive, detailed plans for a post-Castro Cuba and a post-Castro Florida.

There are local government arrangements for crowd control at parties and support for those who cross the 90 miles that separate the island from the peninsula. There are state proposals for economic rebuilding of the island and trade opportunities for Florida businesses. There are federal policies to prevent mass migration and to funnel billions of dollars in federal aid and private investment expected to flood Cuba.

All plans are still in the works, and Florida leaders say all are going to be needed soon.

"Whether the old man is dead, dying or living, what clearly this reminds us of is that we are seeing the last legs of this regime," said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

Along with his brother, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also Miami Republicans, Diaz-Balart is scheduled to meet this morning with White House officials to discuss Cuba. And none too soon, he said.

"If you had asked me four years ago if we had a real plan, I'd have said no," Diaz-Balart said.

Evidence of some of the local plans could be seen Tuesday.

Liz Calzadilla-Fiallo, Miami-Dade County's spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Management, said this week officials followed a confidential emergency blueprint titled, "Change in Caribbean Government Plan."

"It is not specific to Fidel Castro," said Calzadilla-Fiallo. "This plan addresses any type of change likely to produce a mass exodus into the United States."

Until 5 p.m., Miami-Dade County's Emergency Operations Center was open and running at Level 2, meaning several county and state agencies had gathered staff members inside a secure bunker in Doral. Normally used for hurricanes, the center also sprang to life during the recent Miami Heat NBA championship, the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in 2003 and when the Super Bowl plays in Miami.

When news of Castro's surgery broke on Monday night, county officials also enacted a 311 "rumor control" hotline, she said. As of midday Tuesday, about 1,063 people had called the number. Eighty percent of the callers wanted to know the status of Castro's health, she said. The rest inquired about traffic and road blockage due to spontaneous celebrations.

Public safety agencies around South Florida said they did not make any changes to their schedules or patrols in the wake of Castro's surgery. A Coast Guard spokesman said patrols have not seen an increase in migrant traffic since Monday.

On the state level, House Speaker-elect Mario Rubio, R-Miami, said he was polishing up his own ideas for the post-Castro relationship between Florida and Cuba.

Rubio said he hasn't yet processed the fact that he could be the first Florida House speaker in decades to work with a free Cuba.

"It would be a blessing," Rubio said.

Several candidates for governor said they already are incorporating post-Castro Cuba into their plans for the state. Republican Tom Gallagher has said he would establish the office of "Cuba Transition Coordination" within the Executive Office of the Governor.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. Jim Davis said he has made the issue a top congressional priority. "What this means to Florida is far from clear, but it's something we need to pay very close attention to," Davis said.

But until Florida leaders see the proverbial body - which in this case means political change - any plans won't include lifting the decades-old economic embargo, leaders said.

"The embargo should be lifted when the Cuban government allows the same basic freedoms that all the people in our hemisphere have," Gov. Jeb Bush said. A Bush spokeswoman said the governor had not yet spoken to his presidential brother about Castro.

Sen. Mel Martinez said this moment is undeniably significant.

"For a guy who a week ago said he would live to be 100. ... The fact this has taken place, I think, is very ominous," Martinez said. "This is a moment of change, I believe."

Times staff writers Joni James, Wes Allison and Alex Leary contributed to this report.