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Exiles believe Castro soon will fall

Across South Florida, bumper stickers proclaim the end of the Castro era: "Next Christmas in Havana." On Spanish-language radio, hour after hour is devoted to fevered speculation about a democratic millennium to come in Cuba.

Even the governor has joined in, convening a commission to imagine a Florida after Fidel.

Buoyed by the stunning collapse of Communist governments in Eastern Europe, many of this country's more than 1-million Cuban-Americans, most of whom live in the Miami area, are abuzz with the notion that Castro's government will be next.

From Miami's Little Havana to the suburban enclaves of Hialeah and Hollywood, Fla., the excitement is higher now than anyone can remember since Cuban emigres began pouring into South Florida three decades ago.

"I am ready to sell all, to sell my business and go back to Cuba," said Miguel Alvarez, president and owner of National Distributor Magazines, a $2-million-a-year wholesaler of Hispanic publications in South Florida.

Alvarez is not alone: A new poll taken for a Spanish-language TV station indicates as many as 1 in 5, or more than 125,000, of Dade County's Cuban-American adults would return to their homeland if its Communist government was replaced with a democracy, according to the Associated Press.

It matters little that most experts see no evidence that the Cuban leader is in any imminent danger of being overthrown, despite shortages of food and consumer goods.

An announcement last weekend by Cuba's Communist Party leadership, pledging improvements in "democratic centralism" but a continuation of one-party rule, was widely seen as little more than a symbolic response to growing pressures for change.

None of that has prevented an outbreak of what one Cuban-American commentator calls "wishful thinking-cum madness" among many exiles, whose loathing of the Castro government is exceeded only by their longing to return to their homeland.

Miami's 39-year-old mayor, Xavier Suarez, who came to the United States from Havana as a child, said any Cuban-American who watched the dramatic scenes of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall has to be encouraged.

"I think everybody definitely feels a sense of imminence about the situation in Cuba," the

mayor said. "You're almost a conservative in your estimates if you say Castro will last no more than a year."

While residents of other Communist countries travel with newfound ease, a decision to flee Cuba is still a life-or-death matter.

The new arrivals' tales of economic deprivation only serve to feed the notion that collapse in Havana is at hand.

Some exiles who have been in Miami for years have reportedly told their wives that since Castro's overthrow is a certainty it is time to begin liquidating their homes and other property in anticipation of returning to Cuba.

In some cases, such plans have come in the face of strenuous objections by their families, especially the younger members, who have grown up here and cannot imagine being uprooted from the United States.

Alvarez, who said he plans to set up a new magazine distributorship in Cuba, asserted that his wife and family are behind him 100 percent but added that his 19-year-old son "says he's not going."

Another businessman, Jesus Fernandez, a 56-year-old Miami developer whose company grossed $12-million last year, said he is also ready to sell his business, return to Cuba and start over in the same line of work.

Still others have rushed to their lawyers for advice about how to move their businesses, reinvest life savings, or reclaim land and houses confiscated long ago by the Castro government.

"I'm sure people are looking through their vaults to find the deeds to properties they haven't seen in 30 years," said Bernardo Benes, a Miami banker who left Havana in 1960.

Many Cuban-Americans in Florida feel especially encouraged by Gov. Bob Martinez, who announced earlier this month that he had appointed an 18-member "Free Cuba Commission" to prepare a report on how the ouster of Castro would affect the state, especially in terms of commerce, tourism and immigration.

"I don't know anyone who believes that Castro and Communism can continue," Martinez said. "So we should prepare for the moment that they will no longer be there."

Such optimism, however justified, is in keeping with the intense, deeply rooted patriotism of the Cuban exile community, which has a long history of being willing to try virtually anything to weaken Castro, including sabotage and murder.

"Cubans are very patriotic, you know," said Orlando Padron, who was born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba. "As soon as they hear Castro's name they go wild."

On Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), in the heart of Little Havana, storefronts display posters advertising plans to assemble enough anti-Castro protesters this Saturday to make a human chain stretching from Calle Ocho to Key West _ about 160 miles.

Such symbolic protests have become almost routine over the years, especially among anti-Castro Cubans in Miami.

But the more extreme behavior inspired by events in Eastern Europe worries a few Cuban-American leaders, who say a kind of hysteria is developing.

Some have criticized Martinez, a Republican, for establishing the Free Cuba Commission, which they say encourages wildly unrealistic expectations.

Sergio Lopez-Miro, a Cuban-American journalist who writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald, said it is hard to gauge how many Cubans are ready to sell their belongings in anticipation of Castro's ouster, but added that it is certainly a matter for concern.

"I don't believe that 50 percent of the community is doing it, but if 20 percent or 30 percent is that's still a substantial number of people whose lives are being disrupted, and that could affect the state's economy in and of itself," Lopez-Miro said. "The governor has established this ridiculous commission to study the effects of Castro's supposedly imminent demise. But maybe he should be looking instead into the effects of this hysteria on this community."

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