Monday, August 28, 2006

Cubans brace for Ernesto without Fidel Castro

Caribbean Net News

Monday, August 28, 2006

by Marc Frank

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters): For the first time in four decades, Cubans on Sunday faced the possibility of confronting a hurricane without longtime leader Fidel Castro personally leading the nation through the storm.

Castro, who underwent surgery to stop intestinal bleeding at the end of July, and Raul Castro, who took over temporarily while his older brother recovered, remained out of sight as Hurricane Ernesto bore down on the Caribbean nation.

"I'm not worried," said retiree Pedro de la Fuente in a phone interview from the easternmost province of Guantanamo.

"Everyone knows what they have to do and I'm sure Raul is leading civil defense efforts," he said.

Since Hurricane Flora killed several thousand Cubans in 1963, four years after Castro seized power, he made a point of showing up on the spot to personally supervise emergency preparations and recovery efforts during hurricanes.

As he grew older, Castro stopped personally chasing the storms that regularly hit Cuba and began directing civil defense efforts from his office or live from a TV studio. Castro passed his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 in his sick bed.

In earlier years, for hours before and after a storm, Castro would be seen on state television exhorting Cubans to evacuate where necessary.

Raul Castro, the 75-year-old defense minister, has always preferred a much lower profile.

Several Havana residents said on Sunday, a day before Ernesto was expected to reach eastern Cuba as a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, they expected a message of encouragement from Castro's sick bed, and for Raul Castro to appear at some point.

"I'm sure we will see Raul and bet Fidel can't resist saying something," said a Havana nurse, who asked not to be identified.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center forecast Ernesto would come ashore near Santiago de Cuba, then move slowly inland as it traversed most of the island in a northwesterly direction, and exit from west-central Villa Clara province on Tuesday.

"It's sad Fidel can't be here, but preparations will be as always," said Clara Bueno, 46, in a telephone interview from Santiago de Cuba where she rents out rooms to tourists.

A weak hurricane is unlikely to pose a significant danger to Cubans as the country's much touted civil defense system invariably forces the vulnerable to evacuate. Some of the country's dilapidated buildings, however, could suffer damage.

Preparations were in full gear on Sunday with more than 200,000 people being evacuated and official media broadcasting constant warnings and instructions.

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