Friday, August 11, 2006

Ailing Castro still dominates Cuba


Last Updated: Friday, 11 August 2006, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK

Cuba's President Fidel Castro - the world's longest-serving political leader - turns 80 on 13 August. This week, the BBC News website is assessing his political life and his impact on the Caribbean island.

The BBC's Stephen Gibbs writes from Havana about how the leader's presence is felt there.

One of the many things that surprises visitors to Cuba is that there are no statues of Fidel Castro to be seen anywhere.

It is particularly frustrating to television journalists, who arrive hoping to film themselves in situ, next to an image of the iconic leader.

Cuba has a ban on statues to living Cubans. Fidel Castro has often said that he is determined that no personality cult should be allowed to develop around him.

So, there are plenty of grand images of Che Guevara, and other dead heroes of the Cuban revolution, but none of the man who has led this country for 47 years.

Yet Fidel is everywhere.

"That's one peso for me, and five for Fidel," jokes Hubert, a taxi driver in Centro Havana, as I hand him a tip. His meter earnings, supposedly, all go to the government.

If Cubans want to refer to their government, they tend not to say "government". They say "Fidel". Sometimes, through fear, or superstition, they do not actually utter the name.

Instead, with a subtle hand-gesture, they indicate his beard.

Extraordinary effect

Most Cubans have never seen Fidel Castro in person. They know almost nothing about his personal life: if he is married, whether he has any children. But still, they speak of him, on first name terms, as if they know him well.

"Everyone knows that Fidel is the kindest man in the world," says Maria Padron, a grandmother in her 60s, as she sits in the shade of one of Havana's boulevards. "He loves us all."

The effect Fidel Castro has on individuals when he comes face-to-face with them is extraordinary to watch.

In what turned out to be his last public appearance before his operation on 26 July, Fidel Castro inaugurated one of the many new generation plants that have recently been placed around the country, as part of his "Energy Revolution".

Before he spoke, a local official, a middle-aged woman, gave a speech outlining some technical details about the plant.

She then left the stage, and took her place, standing next to Fidel Castro.

The prim, neatly-turned-out lady, began to sob uncontrollably. She rested her head on the president's shoulder, like a child, close to its father.

Fidel Castro appeared quite used to this sort of reaction to his presence, and gently put his arm around the woman.


Now, we are told, the 79-year-old is taking a break as he recuperates from his intestinal surgery.

For those at the upper echelons of the Cuban government, it will be a novel experience.

Fidel Castro is famous for micro-managing. He calls his ministers at all hours of the day and night, to check on specific details of various government projects. Senior foreign businessmen who trade with Cuba say that the final negotiations on price are sometimes held, often in the dead of the night, directly with the president.

Mr Castro has never tolerated formal opposition to his rule. Instead, he sometimes appears to fulfil the role of opposition leader himself, haranguing government officials on live television.

During hurricane season, he turns weatherman, appearing alongside Cuba's meteorologists, to discuss the precise trajectory of approaching storms.

In September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan looked set to make a direct hit on Cuba, the president travelled to western Cuba to confront the challenge head on. Ivan made a last-minute wobble, and missed Cuba.

The veteran revolutionary's quasi-divine image amongst many Cubans was secured.

Last December, perhaps knowing something the rest of us did not, Cuba's Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, made a very rare reference to a Cuba without Fidel Castro.

He spoke of "a void which could never be filled".

However brief Fidel Castro's absence is, it will surely be felt.

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