By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
MIAMI, Feb. 19 -- As the news spread Tuesday morning that Fidel Castro was ceding power, the Versailles Restaurant was the scene of a predictable ruckus.
In the parking lot, which has long served as the informal hub for this city's Cuban protest and chatter, a handful of demonstrators waved signs and flags and urged passersby to honk their horns. Television crews took it all in and set up for live shots. Dozens of other people stood by sipping cafecitos.
But there were none of the massive street demonstrations that have erupted here over other events in Cuba, or during the custody battles over Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who was found floating on an inner tube off the Florida coast.
While Castro's official exit after nearly 50 years in power held the aura of history, many here viewed it as having few, if any, immediate consequences. So with control over the island already shifted to Castro's brother Raúl, the reaction to the long-anticipated end of Castro's reign was muted.
Osvaldo Perez, 72, spent a few minutes shouting "Libertad! Libertad!" at passing traffic, but wasn't convinced himself.
"Where are the people?" he asked.
"The Cuban people are out of limbo," said Raúl Rodriguez, an architect who came to the United States when he was 10 and visits his family on the island annually. "But whether they go to heaven or hell now -- it all depends on Raúl."
"I was expecting more people here," said Richard Valdes, 23, a construction worker whose father came from Cuba. Valdes recalled the reaction to rumors two years ago that Castro had died: "When they said he was dead, it was really big here. But I don't think this news will really change anything."
While there was little jubilation, however, Castro's move seemed destined to set off yet another wave of speculation about what will happen next.
The sense that a new era is opening on the island has been ever-present here for decades.
Repeated polling done by Florida International University has shown that at least since 1991, many Cuban Americans in South Florida have believed that "major political change" is likely within five years. In the most recent poll, last year, the figure was 62 percent. In 1991, it was as high as 88 percent.
So far, they have been disappointed. But radio stations and newspapers have long focused attention on reports about what was happening on the island, and the news of Castro's move Tuesday morning set in motion another round of inquiries.
How long might Raúl, 76, live? Would he diverge much from his brother's rule? Who among the younger generation of leaders will be designated to succeed him?
Jaime Suchlicki, a University of Miami professor and the author of "Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond," looked skeptically on the possibility of immediate change.
"This marks the end of the Fidelista era and the beginning of the Raúlista era," he said.
With security tight and the military unified and in control of much of the economy, change is unlikely, he said.
"When they're both dead, there may be a time of opening," he added.
The sense that little will change hung over the discussions among the exiles.
"The muted response shows that frustration and disappointment that people are feeling," said Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University who studies Cuban politics.
But, he added, "Raúl has always been viewed as a transitional figure. He's an elderly guy."
Exactly who will now rise to the top of the Cuban bureaucracy -- and what the new leader might do in power -- was a question that many have begun to debate yet again, just as they have for decades. Despite the uncertainties, however, many expressed the idea that, if nothing else, a page has been turned.
"I am full of hope," Rodriguez said. "Of course, our hearts have been crushed before over the last 50 years."