Friday, November 24, 2006

South Florida organizations prepare for turmoil after Castro

South Florida organizations prepare for turmoil after Castro

By Madeline Baró Diaz
Miami Bureau
Posted November 24 2006

When Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raul last summer and crowds
in Miami-Dade hit the streets in celebration, one group of people hit
the phones.

The Cuban leader was ill, and because he disappeared from public view,
some people thought he was dead. Members of a humanitarian task force
coordinating a local response kept in touch by phone and waited for a
"trigger point," such as the activation of Miami-Dade's Emergency
Operations Center, to launch their efforts.

That never happened, and things returned to normal after photos and
video footage showed Castro was still alive.

But the response in South Florida pointed to progress.

"If this had happened five years ago, there was no mechanism for all
these entities to be in the loop with each other," said Eric Driggs,
executive director of the South Florida Humanitarian Network for Cuba, a
group of community organizations, universities and government agencies.

Led by the American Red Cross of Greater Miami & The Keys and the
University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies,
the network is preparing for a major event in Cuba that could set off a
mass migration to South Florida or affect the region in some other way.

Although organizers say they do not know what those events will be,
Fidel Castro's recent illness and speculation by U.S. officials that his
condition is terminal mean the network could soon be put into action.

"What happens [in Cuba] is so important to people here in South Florida.
We just need to be prepared for whatever may happen," said Sam Tidwell,
CEO of the American Red Cross of Greater Miami & The Keys.

Local, state and federal government agencies have long had plans in case
turmoil in Cuba spills over to the United States. The South Florida
Humanitarian Network is prepared to provide services to refugees,
organize the collection of donations, provide family reunification
services and disseminate information to the community.

In its "Recommendations for Community Preparedness," released in May,
the network outlined possible scenarios and its role in calming any chaos.

Among the scenarios:

If spontaneous celebrations, solemn vigils or demonstrations break out,
the emphasis is on communication, keeping the public apprised of events
through Miami-Dade County's 311 Answer Center and county officials.

In case of a mass migration to South Florida, while government officials
handle the processing and medical screening of new arrivals, the Red
Cross will take the lead in feeding refugees and processing them, as
well as relaying messages among family members looking for each other.

Another major concern is well-meaning relatives taking to the seas
hoping to help their loved ones in Cuba, said Driggs, who is a
humanitarian aid coordinator and associate researcher with the Institute
for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

If that should happen, the organizations hope to turn those motivated to
help the people of Cuba into volunteers in the aid effort.

"Humanitarian assistance is what will begin the process of healing
wounds and make the transition and reconciliation more peaceful," said
Alfredo Mesa, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation,
which is part of the network.

Another possible effect of the eagerness to help would be a flood of
donated goods, which could overwhelm those coordinating aid to the
island and result in spoilage of perishable items. If that should
happen, the message would be "cash is best," encouraging people to
donate to organizations with which they are comfortable. That money, in
turn, would help aid coordinators meet needs in Cuba.

The network's recommendations acknowledge the difficulties in actually
distributing that aid, however. The American Red Cross chapter cannot
intervene outside U.S. borders, so it recommended an independent
organization be established to handle any relief effort in Cuba.

Other concerns included the island's infrastructure -- roads, ports,
railroads and warehouses -- that are in disrepair. There also is concern
there is no formal channel for aid distribution in Cuba outside of the
government, which would be a problem if the government collapsed. Some
worry that some Cubans might steal donated items.

The network grew out of a 2004 conference on humanitarian aid to Cuba
during a political transition in Cuba. About the same time, the Red
Cross was interested in coordinating a South Florida response to
potential events in Cuba.

While the Red Cross is known for responding to natural disasters,
Tidwell said when he joined the Greater Miami chapter there was no plan
in place for a South Florida emergency triggered by events in Cuba.

"It's like any other event or action that takes place in this
community," he said. "We can't just sit there and say `There is a

Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at or 305-810-5007.,0,3510701.story?coll=sfla-home-headlines

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