MIAMI (AP) – Cuban exile Federico Falcon remembers well how the government of his native country kept a tight lid on information and intimidated anyone who espoused anti-communist views. So, he said, the uncertainty surrounding Fidel Castro’s illness came as no surprise.

The Cuban government “is sneaky and manipulative,” said Falcon, 48, an engineer who fled the island nation on a raft in 1994. “Something surely happened, but they have a tendency to keep things quiet until things are under control.”

On Tuesday, Falcon’s suspicions were shared by thousands of other Cuban-Americans in Miami who questioned whether the Cuban government was telling the full truth about the intestinal disorder that prompted Castro to cede power temporarily to his brother.

“Basically, we are seeing what the Cuban government is saying, but we don’t know if that is true,” said Ninoska Perez of the Cuban Liberty Council, an anti-Castro exile group. “I think they are just gaining time. For all we know, Castro may already be dead or critically ill.”

Castro issued a statement Tuesday night saying his condition was “stable” and that he felt “perfectly fine.” The statement, read on Cuba’s state-run television, provided no details about his intestinal ailment.

Cuban-Americans in Miami said the statement sounded like government propaganda.

“They are just saying that. They are covering up the truth because they can’t take an uproar of people within the island,” said Cari Gonzalez, 26, whose parents came from Cuba in 1980.

A day earlier, reports that Castro had ceded power led a pot-banging, cigar-smoking, flag-waving crowd to take to the streets of Miami’s Little Havana on Monday night.

The crowds were smaller Tuesday but no less fervent, with about 75 people gathered at midday outside the Versailles Cuban restaurant, waving Cuban flags and honking horns. Vendors sold small U.S. and Cuban flags to passing motorists for $7 each.

“The long-awaited day of a Cuba without Castro may be approaching,” said U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. in 1962. “Our hope and purpose should now be for a true moment of change, not a transfer from one dictator to another.”

Talk radio stations devoted nearly all their airtime to the Castro story, and government leaders set up a hot line to keep rumors in check. But in a city where Castro has loomed large for more than a generation, many of Miami-Dade County’s 800,000 Cuban-Americans have long dreamed of the day his communist rule would come to an end.

Most Cuban-Americans view Castro as a ruthless dictator who forced them, their parents or grandparents from their home after he seized power in a revolution in 1959.

“It’s our homeland, our golden land, where one day we want to be able to come and go as we please, and live like we once did,” said Luis Calles, a math teacher who came to the United States in 1994.

Cuban-Americans elsewhere also celebrated. In Tampa’s heavily Cuban-American Ybor City, Gladys Sequeira-Garcia said her family had been “in an uproar.” They fled Cuba in 1960.

“I want my parents to see Cuba back to the way it was when they left – the beautiful beaches, the growing economy and the happy people,” she said.

In Union City, N.J., immigrants at Felix Alfonso’s Cuban restaurant rejoiced after learning of Castro’s surgery. “It was definitely a topic of conversation as soon as we opened up,” said Alfonso, whose eatery is filled with maps of Cuba and posters of Havana.

The festive atmosphere was tempered by the understanding among many Cuban-Americans that Fidel Castro’s brother Raul harbors the same views as his elder brother and has been in firm control of the island’s military. Jorge Alonso, 78, said he expected true change to take 20 years or more.

“The change has to come from within Cuba. It’s not going to come from the United States,” Alonso said, playing dominos and drinking Cuban coffee at a Miami park. “There will be bloodshed in Cuba because there is a lot of hate there. It’s been 47 years of suffering.”

Miami-Dade County’s Emergency Operations Center activated a rumor-control hot line that received more than 500 calls by midmorning, most inquiring about Castro’s health or street congestion and closings.

U.S. and Florida officials have long had plans to avert an exodus from Cuba if the Havana government suddenly opened its borders. There is also concern that Cuban exiles might attempt to cross the Florida Straits in the opposite direction to return to their homeland or pick up family members.

Gov. Jeb Bush said the plan is to prevent a mass movement of people that could create “tremendous hardship and risk for people that can lose their lives.”

The Coast Guard and other Homeland Security Department agencies reported no significant increase in activity Tuesday in the straits. Air charter companies that handle travel to Cuba said they did not notice any increase in passenger requests.

The governor, the president’s brother, said he does not favor lifting the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba if Castro dies. That should only occur, he said, when Cuba starts permitting dissent, religious freedoms and labor unions.

“Those are the basic rules of freedom, and once that occurs, I think it would be more appropriate for the embargo to be lifted,” Bush said.

Most experts and political figures agreed that immediate radical change is unlikely and predicted that Cuban-Americans would not rush to return there.

“It doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to be home next month, moving back into their old houses and so forth,” said Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. “It may bring a more complicated situation than they already have. With Castro, you knew where you stood.”

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, said it will be difficult for Raul Castro to maintain his grip on power, which could lead to a bloody struggle for control.

“I would caution that rather than celebrate, we should consider how we can be of help to the people of the island, how we can do what we can to prevent bloodshed,” Calzon said.

Associated Press writers Laura Wides-Munoz, Curt Anderson, Jessica Gresko, Jennifer Kay and Matt Sedensky in Miami, Phil Davis in Tampa, Travis Reed in Orlando, David Royse in Tallahassee and Janet Frankston in Union City, N.J., contributed to this report.

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