By Anthony Boadle | August 14, 2006
HAVANA (Reuters) - Photos of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro in a hospital bed have brought home to Cubans the prospect that the man who has decided most aspects of their lives for 47 years may never be the same.
Even if Castro recovers from surgery from intestinal bleeding, the tireless revolutionary will have to put his workaholic days behind him, a top Castro aide said.
In messages to the nation, Castro has told Cubans to prepare for the worst. Government officials say he will be back in charge within weeks, but will have to slow down.
Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly and a close Castro aide, said in an interview with NBC on Saturday that doctors have told Castro to rest if he wants to recover, and the Cuban leader, not used to taking orders, is obeying.
"Imagine Fidel Castro sitting or lying on a bed quietly. Not moving around. Not talking to others. It's the first time in his life," Alarcon said.
Castro's legendary stamina has been the driving force behind Cuba since his 1959 revolution, from eight-hour speeches to all-night debates.
Foreign visitors tell of meetings lasting until the wee hours, with Castro doing most of the talking and expounding on all matter of world affairs, while some guests nodded off.
Castro's abdominal bleeding was brought on by overexertion, official accounts say, after a trip to a regional summit in Argentina followed by a day of speeches in eastern Cuba.
There are no statues of Castro in Cuba, but the bearded left-wing firebrand is omnipresent in portraits in offices and homes. The state-run media broadcasts and rebroadcasts his lengthy speeches.
Cubans are used to seeing Castro returning home from work in his motorcade at dawn. Ministers have been called in the middle of the night for statistics by a president who has micromanaged Cuba for decades.
"Now he has to let others govern. He has done enough already," said Alexis Wilson, a driver sitting outside his dilapidated home in Havana's Vedado district.
But he added that Cuba still needed Castro as a figurehead to guide his successors, headed by younger brother Raul Castro, to whom Fidel temporarily ceded power on July 31.
Many Cubans fear the country could fall into chaos without the towering personality of Castro, a Jesuit-educated lawyer who came to power at age 32.
Castro's exiled opponents have banked on Cuba's one-party system collapsing without the man that built it.
Cuba watchers believe a scaled-backed leadership role by Castro may allow a stable transfer of power that is already underway.
Wayne Smith, a former chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, said Castro's surgery allows Cubans to get used to the idea that he may have to step aside altogether.
"It will not come as a shock. Even at present he is still there as a reassuring figure in the background," Smith said. "Meanwhile, the succession has taken place and Raul and others are now running the government."
Smith said Cuban exiles in Miami mistakenly believe that the Cuban government will collapse when Castro dies and they will be able to come back and run the country.
"How absurd," he said.
The Bush administration has said it will not accept a succession led by Defense Minister Raul Castro. The Cuban government is doing its best to ensure that succession happens smoothly.
Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuban-born sociologist at Florida International University, said Cuban authorities had prepared the population well by pacing the news.
"First they showed Fidel was alive, then they showed Raul was running the show and now we see ailing Fidel in bed suggesting he might come back but not be the same," she said.