- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

HAVANA — Cuba’s communist leadership mounted a campaign yesterday emphasizing the revolutionary roots of Fidel Castro’s brother and designated successor, Raul, while attempting to reassure Cubans that the regime remains stable after the leader’s hospitalization.

The government said it would defend itself against any U.S. attempts to take advantage of the elder Mr. Castro’s health crisis. President Bush has called for a transition to democratic rule on the island.

“The word transition does not exist in the vocabulary of Cubans here,” the Communist Party newspaper Granma said, dismissing Mr. Bush’s comments on Thursday as “unacceptable.”

Cuban Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer said during a trip to Guatemala that Mr. Castro was doing well.

The leader “underwent a surgery from which he is recovering satisfactorily,” Mr. Balaguer told Radio Sonora. “We have received messages of support from the most far-flung places in the world.”

He did not elaborate on Mr. Castro’s condition other than to say: “We know Comandante Fidel will recover soon and will be back with us soon.”

The White House sought to reassure Cubans yesterday that the United States would not use the uncertainty surrounding the illness as a pretext to invade Cuba.

“It’s absurd,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said of concerns expressed by some in the Cuban news media that Washington might want to invade Cuba.

“The U.S. has absolutely no designs on invading Cuba. The Cubans are going to determine their destiny, the one thing that they’ve been deprived of during the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. And we hope that they’re going to be able to enjoy the freedoms they clearly want,” Mr. Snow said.

Washington has long sought to overthrow the Cuban leader using an economic embargo, but has not tried the military route since the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs operation.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday urged the Cuban people not to flee the island for Florida because of political uncertainty.

In brief remarks aired by U.S. government broadcasts to the island, Miss Rice promised the Cuban people humanitarian assistance when they begin “to chart a new course” after long years of communist rule.

Neither Fidel nor Raul Castro has appeared in public since the announcement Monday night that Fidel was temporarily ceding power to Raul. Officials sought to assure Cubans that the communist regime has retained its hold on power.

“We Cubans are prepared for the defense … and Raul is there firmly at the helm of the nation, of the Revolutionary Armed Forces,” Granma said.

Granma recounted Raul’s decision to assume responsibility for the disastrous 1953 attack on a military barracks, which began the Cuban revolution.

Raul believed his brother had been killed. When he discovered Fidel had survived, he returned to his role as soldier, according to the article, which said: “This is a story that cannot be ignored in the face of today’s events.”

Some Cuban exiles pressed Mr. Bush to go further than rallying people on the island to push for democracy.

William Sanchez, an attorney for the Cuban American National Foundation, urged the president to tell Cuba to set an elections timetable, and to let Cuban-Americans go to the island by boat to help with a political transition.

U.S. policy requires halting such “flotillas” before they enter Cuban waters.

Cuban state press repeated the mantra: “The revolution will continue.”

Some on the island suspected Fidel, who turns 80 on Aug. 13, was still in charge, an impression supported by Raul’s avoidance of the spotlight.

“Initially, I don’t think Raul Castro is going to make any decisions on his own without the authorization of his brother,” said Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo, a former exile now living in Cuba as a moderate dissident.

The official press continued to line up Cubans expressing confidence both in Fidel’s ability to recover quickly and in Raul’s competence to govern in the meantime.

“Every Cuban trusts Raul, and every one of our leaders,” an unnamed woman said on state television news. “We are certain that the revolution will continue.”

A U.S. official, however, said Cubans in contact with the American mission in Havana expressed fear and unease as they awaited new developments.

“We are seeing among the Cuban people a real sense that Fidel is never coming back to power — there seems to be a growing consensus in that direction,” said Drew Blakeney, U.S. Interests Section spokesman.

Juanita Castro, who lives in Miami and has been estranged from her brother Fidel since 1963, said people in Havana had told he was released from intensive care Wednesday, but she knew nothing more.

“He’s very sick, that’s it,” she said.

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