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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 22:01 GMT
Muted Miami reaction to Castro news
By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Miami

On Miami's Eighth Street, where the traffic crawls along under the humid grey February skies, Cuban exiles have been gathering to discuss the news from across the Straits of Florida, and to talk of hope and home.

Cuban exile in Miami celebrates - 19 February 2008
Miami's Cubans harbour strong anti-Castro feelings

Every now and then conversation is drowned out by the blaring horn of a passing truck or car offering a raucous salute of congratulation - but in truth the crowd is small.

The dominant note is of speculation rather than celebration.

The main gathering point - where television engineers, crews and reporters briefly threaten to outnumber the exiles - is the Cafe Versailles.

The name offers a curious nod to French culture in a part of town where everything from contact lenses to cocktails to car-seat covers is advertised in Spanish.

This is a place where exiled Cubans have created a world of their own in which to wait out the communist regime at home, and to dream of returning to see relatives or to visit old family graves.

'This is a trick'

As the crowd begins to grow a little towards lunchtime, two optimistic street vendors turn up hawking Cuban flags and the stars and stripes from the tailgate of their pick-up truck.

Business is pretty slow - you dance in the street with a flag when the political news is simple, joyous and unambiguous, not when the political news is complex and ambiguous, and comes couched in Fidel Castro's dated and convoluted agitprop style.

One or two of the older men remove the cellophane from fat-looking fine cigars - they obviously have their own means of supply of Cuban smoking materials, which are strictly banned in the United States as part of the continuing trade embargo.

Fidel Castro (13 August 2006)
Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since his operation in July
They hate Mr Castro - one man told me he was "worse than Hitler, worse than Mussolini" - but they are not sure that he is gone. Not yet.

Some at least believe that the influence of Mr Castro, architect of revolution and crusher of dissent, will only be ended when he is dead.

Humberto Pellon, a real estate agent, told me simply: "This is a trick. Castro says he hands power to his brother Raul, but behind the scenes very little changes. It is to please and to fool the international community."

Mr Pellon reminds me of not long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mr Castro warned Mikhail Gorbachev that any attempt to reform communism would lead to its inevitable destruction.

His question for me is simple - would a man who warned others against the dangers of allowing a chink of daylight in on the darkness of communism now make such a stupid mistake himself?

We find ourselves in the middle of a lively debate - parts of which are translated into Spanish for those who can not follow it.

There are plenty of people who argue that once the regime has permitted even the smallest of changes, then the process of change will acquire an unstoppable momentum.

Divided families

In a quieter part of the courtyard of the Versailles, I meet Mirta Iglesias, whose eyes fill with tears as she remembers how she was not allowed back into Cuba for the funeral of her father in 1996.

She wants to see Cuba re-opened to families like hers so that her children and grandchildren who have grown up as Americans can see the land in which they have their roots.

Like Mr Pellon and several other people who spoke to me, Mirta left Cuba as a child.

Cuban exile in Miami celebrates - 19 February 2008
Will Castro's resignation bring about this man's wish?
She still remembers how many families like hers were divided in the violence and the chaos as some were able to flee and some were trapped by Mr Castro's forces.

"People need both food and freedom, but this is the beginning of the end, change must come now," she told me.

There is no consensus, just a debate that will go on for days as the exiles wait to see how the last act of Mr Castro's extraordinary life will now play out.

There are optimists who say that the new regime will not be able to withstand the combination of internal and external pressures which it will now face: growing poverty and dysfunctional government at home, and the increasing demands for change from America and from beyond.

After all they argue, Cuba has been living on borrowed time since the end of the Soviet Union removed its main trading partner and benefactor from the map of the world.

The pessimists say the Cuban leadership has had years to plan for this moment and will not give up power easily.

The two groups show no sign of coming to agreement on Eighth Street - not on how the immediate future will unfold anyway. But there is one point on which they do agree.

"You want to see celebrations?" asked one. "Come back when Castro dies. Then you will see how we celebrate."



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