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Archive for Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Cuba tries to project normalcy

August 2, 2006

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— Fidel Castro said Tuesday that he was stable and in good spirits after surgery, according to a statement read on state television, as the Communist government tried to impose a sense of normalcy on the island's first day in 47 years without the bearded leader in charge.

Castro, who temporarily handed power to his younger brother Raul on Monday night after undergoing intestinal surgery, indicated the operation was serious when he said: "I can not make up positive news."

But he said his health was "stable," and "as for my spirits, I feel perfectly fine," according to the statement read by moderator Randy Alonso on a daily public affairs program. He said it would take some time for doctors "to provide a verdict" on his recovery.

Castro apologized for not giving more details, but said the threat posed to his government by the United States means his health must be treated as "a state secret."

Castro expressed his gratitude for the good wishes he received from leaders and supporters around the world, and called on Cubans to remain calm as they carried out their daily routines.

"The country is prepared for its defense," he said in the statement. "Everyone needs to struggle, and work."

Across the Florida straits in Miami, where hundreds of thousands of fleeing Cubans have settled, boisterous celebrations Monday night gave way to speculation about what would happen in Cuba when Castro dies. Car horns still blared, but some cautioned the celebrations may have been premature.

Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon called the celebrations "vomit-provoking acts" led by "mercenaries and terrorists."

He told the government's Prensa Latina news service that the Cuban leader is known for fighting to the very end, but said his "final moment is still very far away."

Raul Castro, the island's acting president, was nowhere to be seen as Cubans began to worry about what comes next.

"Everything's normal here - for the moment," said hospital worker Emilio Garcia, 41, waiting for a friend at a Havana hotel. "But we've never experienced this before - it's like a small test of how things could be without Fidel."

Cuban dissidents kept a low profile while watching for signs of Castro's condition. It was unknown when or where the surgery took place or where the 79-year-old leader was recovering.

Cubans were stunned when Castro's secretary read a letter on state television Monday night announcing their leader was temporarily turning over power to his younger brother, the island's defense minister and the president's designated successor.

Castro had been seen frequently in recent days, delivering speeches in eastern Cuba during a revolutionary holiday and making waves at a trade summit in Argentina. Those back-to-back trips and the resulting stress "ruined" his health, according to his letter.

"It's so surprising, because in Argentina he gave off such a strong political image and looked quite vital," said Rafael Marti, a businessman from Spain visiting Cuba with his wife. He said he didn't expect rapid change on the island 90 miles south of Florida.

Cubans agreed nothing was likely to change overnight - especially not with Castro's fiercely loyal brother at the helm. Raul Castro, who turned 75 in June, has been his brother's constitutional successor for decades and has assumed a more public profile in recent weeks.

The calm delivery of the announcement appeared intended to signal that any transition of power would be orderly. Yet some feared resentment over class divisions could spark conflict if a political vacuum develops.

"It's better for things to move slowly, instead of abrupt change," Garcia said. "But people are a bit nervous - anything could happen."

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