Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Americans and Cubans alike began contemplating a world without Fidel Castro yesterday, in most cases responding cautiously on the Caribbean island’s first day since 1959 without the ailing 79-year-old at the helm.

Fidel, who has temporarily ceded power to brother Raul while recovering from gastrointestinal surgery Monday, in a statement on government television last night put to rest any idea that he was near death. The statement was read by moderator Randy Alonso.

“I can say it is a stable condition,” said Fidel, who did not appear on the screen. “I am in perfectly good spirits.”

State-run television previously had provided no details of Fidel’s state after emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding, and doctors had said it was impossible to judge from public information just how serious his condition may be.

But some Cuban dissidents went into hiding for fear of a crackdown by Raul, who will remain in charge of the country during a convalescence period expected to last several weeks. And Cuban-American legislators raised the prospect of a popular revolt against the continent’s last dictatorship.

“It’s clear that this is the start of the transition,” activist Manuel Cuesta Morua told the Associated Press in Havana. “This gives Cuba the opportunity to have a more rational leadership” because top leaders will be forced to work together rather than following one man.

Wire agencies in Havana said most Cubans went about their business in a normal manner, while small groups gathered in what appeared to be government-organized demonstrations of support for the ailing leader. That was in contrast to the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami, where anti-Castro celebrations began Monday night and continued yesterday.

Whatever Fidel’s condition, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was ready to help the island nation move on. “We believe that the Cuban people aspire and thirst for democracy and that given the choice, they would choose a democratic government,” he said.

Reflecting that spirit, a news ticker atop the U.S. Interests Section in Havana carried the message: “All Cubans, including those under the dictatorship, can count on our help and support. We respect the wishes of all Cubans.”

Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen suggested Fidel’s illness presented a window of opportunity for the international community to back a popular uprising.

“There is a lot we can do to get international support for the people of Cuba,” the Florida Republican said, although it would be “very hard for people to rise up against Raul.”

“We have messages going out to the military that this is not the time to rise against their brothers and sisters in Cuba — and we hope they begin an even stronger push for civil disobedience,” she said.

Frank Calzon, head of the U.S.-based Center for a Free Cuba, said some dissidents in Cuba fear that Raul may introduce harsh measures to guard against such an uprising.

“They are very fearful, and some dissidents are not staying at home; they moved to stay with relatives, hoping they will not be the target of government repression,” he said.

“I think the Castro government has gone into a bunker mentality, and they are trying to send a message to the Cuban people that they are ready to do whatever it takes to remain in power.”

For political analysts, the big question is whether Raul, who has long led the critical armed forces, can exercise the same level of authority over Cuba’s 11 million people as his charismatic older brother.

Brian Latell, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America and the author of a Raul biography called “After Fidel,” predicted the military would remain loyal to the 75-year-old Raul.

“I think that in the short term we won’t notice much difference” between the Fidel and Raul regimes, Mr. Latell said. He predicted that Raul would not “resort to any brutal tactics” to retain control of the country if he can avoid it.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, who said she wished Fidel “a sudden death,” warned Cubans against trying to enter the United States illegally and cautioned Cuban-Americans in Miami not to try to pick up their relatives on the high seas.

“This is not the time for that,” she said. “There have been rumors that might happen, and I am saying very clearly in English and Spanish that there has not been any change: Their boats will be stopped and confiscated.”

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