Cuba Tries To Impose Normalcy With Castro Ailing

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HAVANA (AP) – Cuba’s Communist government tried to impose a sense of normalcy Tuesday, its first day in 47 years without Fidel Castro in charge. Businesses remained open and workers rallied in support of their ailing leader, who temporarily handed power to his brother after surgery.

Raul Castro, the island’s acting president, was nowhere to be seen as Cubans began to worry about what comes next and exiles in Miami celebrated a development they hoped signaled the death of a dictator. Cuban dissidents kept a low profile while watching for signs of Castro’s condition.

“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.”

The main newscast on state-run television gave no details of the 79-year-old Castro’s condition, but ran a string of man-on-the-street interviews with Cubans wishing him well and professing confidence in the revolution’s staying power. The anchor said Castro had the people’s “unconditional support.”

It was unknown when or where the surgery took place or where Castro was recovering. But the Venezuelan government, Cuba’s closest ally, said Cuban officials reported Castro was “advancing positively.” Leftist Argentine lawmaker Miguel Bonasso said Castro aides told him the leader was resting peacefully.

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.

In the letter, Castro, who turns 80 on Aug. 13, said doctors operated to repair a “sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding.” Neither Castro brother was shown.

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.”

Dissidents said they expected the government to be on the defensive, with a high security presence and a low tolerance for political acts.

“It’s clear that this is the start of the transition,” said activist Manuel Cuesta Morua. “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.

Officials halted some interviews by journalists Tuesday, with one plainclothes officer ejecting an Associated Press reporter from a cafe for asking questions. People on the street were reluctant to talk to foreign journalists, and many declined to give full names.

“We’ve been asked to keep things normal here, and to make sure that the revolution continues,” said Daniel, a young social worker.

Government work centers brought employees together for small rallies throughout Havana.

“For this man, we must give our life,” a customs worker told a crowd waving Cuban flags and shouting “Long live Fidel!”

Elsewhere, it looked like a regular day in Havana, with people packed into buses and standing in line outside stores.

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.

Many Cubans on the island thought the Miami celebrations were in poor taste.

“We aren’t going to celebrate someone’s illness,” said a waitress who wouldn’t give her name.

In Washington, the State Department said it would support 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.

Castro, who took control of Cuba in 1959, has resisted repeated U.S. attempts to oust him as well as demands for multiparty elections and an open economy. He has survived communism’s demise elsewhere and repeatedly insisted his socialist system would long outlive him.

Doctors in the United States said Castro’s condition could be life-threatening but since the details of his symptoms were not released it was hard to say what caused the bleeding: severe ulcers, a colon condition called diverticulosis or _ an outside possibility _ cancer.

Castro seemed optimistic of recovery, asking in his letter that celebrations scheduled for his 80th birthday be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.

The leaders of China, Venezuela, Bolivia and Mexico wished Castro well.

Castro has been in power since the Jan. 1, 1959, triumph of the armed revolution that drove out dictator Fulgencio Batista. He has been the world’s longest-ruling head of government, and his ironclad rule has ensured Cuba’s place among the world’s five remaining communist countries, along with China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

Talk of Castro’s mortality was taboo until June 23, 2001, when he fainted during a speech in the sun. Although Castro quickly recovered, many Cubans understood for the first time that their leader would eventually die.

Castro shattered a kneecap and broke an arm when he fell after a speech on Oct. 20, 2004, but laughed off rumors about his health, most recently a 2005 report he had Parkinson’s disease.

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