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In Key West, few worry about Cuba

But staring them in the face is the possibility of Castro's death and a repeat of the 1980 boat lift that flooded the island with 125,000 refugees.

Published August 8, 2006

KEY WEST - Mayor Morgan McPherson's clothes are casual and his speech is calm. On the tip of his lips, though, are words of potential disaster.

This city, the closest American point to Cuba, could see a mass exodus of Cuban refugees making the 90-mile ocean crossing and arriving at the shore after Fidel Castro dies. The number, he says, could rival, if not surpass, the Mariel boat lift of 1980.

"That is a reality," McPherson said. "That's something we need to be prepared for."

Officials, business owners and average citizens recognize that this city's proximity to Cuba in a time of political uncertainty could make it vulnerable. But few in laid-back Key West say the possibility of such change has them losing any sleep.

Mike Morrow, a 61-year-old retired police officer who has lived here 10 years, sounded sentiments many locals seem to share.

"If it goes good, if it doesn't go good," he said, "I don't know that it'll affect me one way or another."

If history repeats itself, though, Morrow could be wrong.

In 1980, when Castro allowed those who wanted to leave the island to depart by boat from the small Mariel port, Key West was inundated. Roughly 125,000 people crossed the Florida Straits and arrived here.

Depending on what happens in Cuba in the months following Castro's death, upward of 500,000 people could leave the island nation, estimated Andy Gomez, an assistant provost at the University of Miami who is also a senior fellow in the school's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.

Castro, who turns 80 this month, temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul last week when he underwent abdominal surgery. That led to speculation that his death might be imminent.

Such an exodus could be warded off, Gomez said, if some limited economic reforms were put in place or if the new Cuban government made even minor improvements, such as increasing the amount of food that residents are given.

But Gomez suggested the island's new leader might open the border again in hopes of prompting a mass migration to the United States and embarrassing the White House.

Cubans here express a variety of views. Some, like 53-year-old Luis Lao Rodriguez, a lobster fisherman, want to return to their homeland. Others, like 49-year-old Angel Ramos, can't imagine leaving the United States.

Still others, like Arturo Cobo, are ready to fight.

Cobo, 65, fought in anti-Castro rebels' failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and later led efforts to help Cubans arriving during the Mariel boat lift. He is waiting for the day change begins to occur within Cuba, and he says he is ready to join the fight for democracy.

"The people who have been waiting for this, that have been preparing - they're going to wait, they're going to go there ... to help to liberate our country," Cobo said. "We're going to participate."

The Coast Guard has a plan in place to deal with a potential mass migration from Cuba arriving on unsafe rafts and boats.

"We do a lot of speculation of 'what if,' " said Petty Officer 1st Class Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman. "We're monitoring what's going on. Nothing has been executed. But there are forces that would be laid down."

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 00:32:35]

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