Friday, August 11, 2006

Edgy Cuba preparing parties for Castro's 80th

Palm Beach Post Staff Reports

Friday, August 11, 2006

HAVANA — Despite new worries about Cuban leader Fidel Castro's health, it appeared Thursday that the state intends to celebrate his 80th birthday Sunday, albeit more subdued.

Rehearsals and preparations for public displays of affection were being encouraged in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and other cities.

It was clear the government was intent on celebrating Castro's life as a way of calming any lingering uncertainties about the island's security. Last week, after Castro underwent intestinal surgery, the government had announced that the official celebration of his Aug. 13 birthday would be postponed until December.

On Thursday, sounds of Cuban reggaeton filled the small square across from Havana's famous Floridita bar and restaurant as scores of children danced and participated with a local children's theater group, dressed as clowns. The clowns pantomimed being in the invisible box. One of them had the kids howling with laughter as he performed ventriloquism with a naughty dog that spit water onto the crowd.

In Santiago, a public gathering yielded to cheers of "Viva Fidel," and the crowd was reminded that his birthday was just four days away.

Still, the atmosphere in Cuba's second-largest city was far more subdued than in the more tourist-flavored capital.

Santiago, a city of 1 million, prides itself in the rebellious character of its residents. It was in this region that Fidel Castro almost lost his life after dictator Fulgencio Batista's troops foiled his arrival on the vessel Granma with a ragtag militia. The coastal residents fervently aided the revolutionaries, known as the July 26 Movement.

Military mobilization Since last week, residents of the provinces on the south coast just west of Guantanamo Bay have reported signs of a mobilization.

Members of communist neighborhood watches known as CDRs have been spending hours on the beaches, keeping vigil for the sight of American Navy ships.

Witnesses in the town of Bayamo, two hours northwest of Santiago, spotted Russian-made military trucks on the choked-up country road, some carrying rice, others boxes of mangoes, and yet others soldiers packed like sardines.

"At this point, the average Cuban sees military convoys, sees their children called up for duty and starts to truly believe that a U.S. invasion is imminent," says a retired university professor in one of those coastal towns. He asked not to be named. "The transports have impressed the population."

And it seems to be happening across the island. Thousands of Cuban men have received unannounced visits, some in the middle of the night, others by day.

A knock on the door. An official notice delivered by a military police messenger in plain clothes.

"Be at the address on the paper in 12 hours," the policeman told some. "You're being mobilized." No reason given. No further instructions.

"Since Wednesday, I've been sitting in an office with three other men mobilized like me for 12 hours a day," says one of those now in their second week of service.

The man, from a city two hours outside of Havana, also requested that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. The father of one who works for a government communications office is lucky. He serves in civilian clothes near his home. Most called up last week are spread throughout the country, in uniform.

"We're in a room with little furniture. No table. No TV. No computer. No books. Just chairs and a telephone. We know we're here because the president is sick. But we don't know for what purpose. We don't have guns or anything. No uniform. If there is an anti-Castro demonstration or the Americans come, we wouldn't know what to do."

Cuba has stepped up militarization of civilians in the past. For instance, when its military forces were spread out across Africa during the late 1970s, the government resorted to various measures at home to expand its armed forces as well as enlarge reserve units. In addition to enlisting male citizens over 16 for military service, it recruited men from 17 to 55 as well as women from 17 to 40 as reserves who are ready for active service or short-term training on short notice.

The mobilization of reservists usually comes in times of internal crisis, aiming not only to counter foreign intervention but also to send a signal to the nation that the domestic situation is under control.

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