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Reaction to Castro news is subdued
It wasn't the Big One, but news that Fidel Castro was surrendering his title triggered subdued celebrations - and some skepticism.

In the end, it represented just another step in Fidel Castro's phased withdrawal from public life, and it left most Cuban Americans yearning for so much more -- democracy in their homeland, sweeping change and, yes, the tyrant's final breath.

And so news that Castro finally was stepping down as Cuba's official leader stirred a tempered burst of glee Tuesday in Little Havana and elsewhere in South Florida, along with a healthy measure of skepticism.

Small groups staged modest celebrations -- waving flags, chanting slogans, rhythmically honking horns. Authorities monitored events -- and reported no major boatlifts or other unusual activity. Countless conversations began and ended with the same thoughts: What does it mean? When will this end?

At the Casa Potín Bakery in Hialeah:

''One has to be realistic,'' Raimundo Batista said. ``Only when that whole group is out will there be change.''

At the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana:

''It's the best thing that could have happened on this 19th of February,'' Regina Botello said. ``It's the first step toward real change.''

At La Placita Restaurant and Bakery in Hollywood:

''I think Castro stepping down is a symbolic gesture, as nothing will change in Cuba,'' Juan Pinto said. ``It was almost two years ago that he handed over power to his brother, Raúl, while supervising his methods.''

Many exile leaders and elected officials also framed the announcement -- an 81-year-old Castro transferring power to a 76-year-old Castro -- as something less than a complete surrender of authority by a generation that has been in power for nearly half a century.

And they said real progress, genuine reform, appeared as distant as ever.

''We have to realize that until he is dead, there is not going to be that much of a change,'' U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said of Fidel Castro. ``Just because he has given up a title, doesn't mean he has given up power.''

Adm. James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, the Pentagon's headquarters for military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, said his staff was monitoring events in Cuba and its waters, but no unusual activity was detected.

''Fidel Castro's resignation is another sign that change is under way in Cuba,'' Stavridis said. ``Ultimately, of course, the Cuban people will chart the course for their country, hopefully finding their way to full democracy with free and fair elections.''

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said he contacted his police director and emergency manager and the governor, but ``nothing has occurred. It's very quiet.''

Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who leads Florida's fifth-largest city, played down the news he first heard by telephone at 5:15 a.m. ''All's quiet,'' he said of his city of 236,000 people. ``This is just official confirmation of what we knew 18 or 19 months ago. Short of the two Castro brothers leaving the island or dying, you're not going to get a strong reaction from this community.''


Still, the official announcement that Fidel Castro would not seek reelection as president sparked small, ever-evolving demonstrations along Calle Ocho, which runs through the heart of Miami's Little Havana.

At one point during the day, about 100 people gathered outside Versailles, and the tranquility of hours earlier gave way to bursts of colorful street theater, which seemed to flare most intensely when television cameras switched on.

''I want my Cuba free -- I want to die in my country,'' shouted Miguel Beruvides, 75.

Across the street, Santiago Portal, 62, paced back and forth in a white tuxedo, with a red bow tie and carnation, sporting an Uncle Sam-style hat and white dancing shoes.

He flashed a peace sign and waved a placard that read, ''yo quiero el cambio'' -- ``I want change.''

By nightfall, a few dozen people watched as others carried a white wooden casket with a doll -- representing Castro -- in green military fatigues and a devil's mask. They encouraged cars to run over it. No one took the offer, but traffic slowed to a crawl.

Enrique Hernandez said he felt some joy and satisfaction, but that most people would express it in a personal, private way. He said younger people would likely take power in Cuba soon -- a promising prospect.

''Now, the succession will occur,'' Hernandez said. ``I think you will see young people rise up. And that's good because they might bring fresh ideas.''

Among South Florida's younger people, the reaction generally was as muted as it was among older generations. About a dozen Florida International University students monitored developments by watching a television in a college library.

''I'm surprised, but I'm worried about what's going to happen next,'' said Jessica Torgas, 20, a journalism student and a Cuban American. ``It can go good, it can go bad; there's no way to know.''

As the day progressed, most Spanish-language radio stations -- which often set the community's agenda -- reported the news without embellishment.


At a studio in Coral Gables that serves as the home for several popular Spanish-language stations, including Radio Mambí, it was business as usual -- no balloons, no high-fives, just a larger volume of calls for veteran commentators Armando Pérez Roura and Ninoska Pérez Castellón.

''It's just another day,'' Pérez Roura said.

Well, yes and no.

Back near Versailles, Orlando Gonzalez, 80, was selling Cuban flags and hats.

''Nothing is new,'' said Gonzalez, who has lived in the United States since 1965. ``There have been too many years of oppression. I wish the Castros were dead tonight -- both of them.''

Asked if he would live to see democracy take hold in Cuba, Gonzalez looked toward the sky.

He said: ``I ask God that I do.''

Miami Herald staff writers Andres Amerikaner, Pablo Bachelet, Adam H. Beasley, Erika Beras, Begoñe Cazalis, Lesley Clark, Trenton Daniel, Amy Driscoll, Oscar Corral, Laura Figueroa, Ani Martinez, Laura Morales, Jennifer Mooney Piedra, Matthew I. Pinzur, Charles Rabin, Andrea Robinson, Carol Rosenberg, Nancy San Martin, Roberto Santiago, Jay Weaver and Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.