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Cubans ponder life without Fidel

FOR NOW, NORMALITY: With word on Castro's condition limited, Cuba waits - and thinks about the future. If Castro dies and power shifts to his brother, experts don't expect a citizen uprising.

By TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published August 2, 2006


On a typically steamy summer's day, Havana residents found themselves Tuesday dealing with the extraordinary prospect of a country without Fidel Castro at the helm.

They went about their daily lives much as usual as they awaited news of whether Castro had emerged from surgery for acute intestinal bleeding. But they had plenty of time to puzzle, at least privately, over the significance of Castro's surprise announcement Monday night that he had temporarily transferred power to his younger brother Raul Castro, head of the armed forces.

"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."

There were no major popular demonstrations of support, except for a few gatherings of government workers, but neither were there any signs of public unrest. Not surprisingly, most Cubans approached in the street were unwilling to comment publicly on the fate of the man who has run Cuba for 47 years - especially with uniformed Ministry of Interior police on nearly every corner.

But in the privacy of their homes, many Cubans were up half the night Monday talking with neighbors and family, dissecting every possible scenario, including that Castro might already be dead. Was the government covering up, they wondered, to buy time for a smooth succession? Castro's own signed proclamation stating that he had to undergo "complicated surgery" that would require "several weeks of rest" was hardly reassuring.

Cubans had to wait until Tuesday evening for any update on his condition. During the day, state-run TV and radio had filled their broadcasts with a typical diet of government projects and news from Bolivia and Mexico. Not a single senior Cuban official, including head of state-designate Raul Castro, appeared in public.

It wasn't until 6:30 p.m., at the beginning of the nightly "round table" TV news program that any official broached the subject.

Randy Alonso, the host of Mesa Redonda, said Castro had just been on the phone and had asked Alonso to relay a message to the people.

"I can't invent good news," Castro's statement began. "A true evolution of the state of health needs time. The most I can say is that the situation will remain stable for many days before a verdict can be given."

Castro said he would not fall "into the vicious circle" of daily updates of his health.

Cubans would understand, he said, that his health must remain a state secret because "if the news were bad, the only one who is going to benefit is the enemy."

While Castro's words might provide some comfort to his most faithful followers, there can be no question that Cuba is headed into uncharted waters. Officials may want to give the impression of business as usual, but power now lies in the hands of an untested leader.

Cubans agreed nothing was likely to change overnight. 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. He is known to be fiercely loyal, though far less charismatic than Castro.

In Washington, the State Department said it would support only a democratic transition in Cuba. Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Cuban people are weary of communist rule and eager to choose a new form of government.

"We believe that the Cuban people aspire and thirst for democracy and that given the choice they would choose a democratic government," he said.

Three weeks before the official announcement in Havana of Castro's deteriorating health, a U.S. presidential commission called for an $80-million program to bolster nongovernmental groups in Cuba for the purpose of hastening an end to the country's communist system.

The report also proposed "assistance in preparing the Cuban military forces to adjust to an appropriate role in a democracy." It provided no details on this point.

But experts on Cuba were unanimous Tuesday in their belief that the disability or even death of Fidel Castro will not result in a coup or people rioting for change. The reason, they say, is that Raul has a firm grip on the military.

While considered ruthless in the early days of the revolution - reported to have handled executions of enemies himself - Raul Castro has been known to promote star performers in the military in a form of meritocracy, according to Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst, in his recent book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader.

Latell writes that the military has been the most stable and best managed of the revolution's institutions under Raul's watch.

Also, Raul Castro has transferred some tourist enterprises under control of the military, giving its members a stake in the status quo.

"Why do they want to knock down Raul Castro when they can keep money in their pocket?" said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow on contemporary Cuba and transition issues at the University of Miami.

"There will be no coup in Cuba," he said.

What's more, the population, while suffering and frustrated, has endured decades of a totalitarian government and will not endanger themselves and their families by protesting in the street, Gomez said.

The only way they might is if high-ranking military members act first, openly opposing Raul, which Gomez doubts will happen.

"If someone from the government or the (military) stands up and says 'I cannot support Raul Castro as my leader,' that's when you'll see a tremendous reaction," he said.

Cuba watchers agree that for Castro to transfer power even temporarily is extraordinary because he has undergone surgery before and never relinquished power, Gomez said. Gomez said he has long predicted that when Castro dies it would be kept secret until Raul firmly settles into power.

"We had always expected that we were not going to know," Gomez said.

His office plans to examine satellite photos to determine if troops are on the move throughout the island, a sign that Castro might have died and officials are nervous about uprisings.

"But how long can he keep it in place?" Gomez asked of Raul's leadership. "The only way he can do that is to meet the immediate needs of people, and by that I mean food and shelter. He doesn't have the charisma and he doesn't have the leadership capacity, though he is very organized."

Like other experts, Gomez said once Fidel Castro is incapacitated or off the scene, Raul Castro will implement economic changes slowly, evolving into a form of state-controlled capitalism similar to China. That would include expanding some of the 1990s reforms.

"I think he will have to do that again in order to survive," Gomez said.

Fidel Castro held his nose while introducing capitalist-style reforms during the crisis of the 1990s, known as the "Special Period in Time of Peace." The era followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's chief sponsor, and was marked by drastic shortages in fuel, food and basic necessities like soap and shampoo.

Desperate, Fidel Castro legalized use of the U.S. dollar and opened the economy to tourism and joint-venture enterprises with foreign companies, many from Europe - though the government kept majority share.

The era ended in the late 1990s as Cuba and Venezuela developed closer relations. Cuba recently began relying on a new export to pay for Venezuelan petroleum - doctors. Cuba, respected in Latin America for its medical training, has for years sent doctors to help poorer countries throughout the region. But now it's using its human capital to pay for fuel, as well as importing Venezuelan medical patients, who are put up in tourist hotels.

Despite the appearance of normality, 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," said Emilio Garcia, the hospital worker. "But people are a bit nervous - anything could happen."

Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.