By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published August 7, 2006
HAVANA -- Despite the absence of Cuba's leaders, the fear and uncertainty that gripped people here immediately after Fidel Castro's announcement that he had undergone complicated surgery have been replaced by calm and a sense, even among government critics, that the island's socialist system may survive even if the president doesn't.
Indeed, many Cubans appear almost blase about the nation's predicament even though analysts had predicted this moment would be met by civil unrest.
"Everything is tranquil," said off-duty soldier Rogelio Piloto Diaz, 20, as he sipped rum with his girlfriend Saturday night along the Malecon, Havana's seaside boulevard. "Everything will turn out just fine."
Though neither Castro nor his brother, acting President Raul Castro, has appeared publicly since July 31, when the announcement about the 79-year-old president's health crisis stunned the nation, "it's like nothing happened," said a young Havana resident, who asked not to be named because of fear of government retaliation.
"Life continues the same. Nothing ever changes."
Government supporters see this attitude as a show of support for the island's communist government. Critics say it demonstrates the fear that pervades Cuban society after 47 years of a police state. But it also reflects some Cubans' comfort with the status quo, which provides them with cradle-to-grave security. They are accustomed to not knowing what is happening within the government.
`Only 1 source of information'
"Neither one of the principal leaders have come out and said anything yet, but the weird thing is that most people don't expect it to be any other way," said another Havana resident, who also asked not to be identified. "There is only one source of information, and whatever way the government chooses to handle this is assumed to be the right way."
Diplomats and analysts say it's important to remember that Cuba has been an independent nation only for slightly more than a century and that Fidel Castro has reigned unchallenged almost half that time.
They point out that Cuba under Castro is not North Korea, a hermetically sealed country where millions starve. It also has not experienced civil war like El Salvador or Guatemala.
But it is a nation where a popular T-shirt bears the slogan, "Commander-in-Chief, give us the order!" and where Castro's anti-American views are so ubiquitous that a 6-year-old boy can sidle up to a foreigner's sport-utility vehicle and offer this unsolicited opinion: "All Americans are assassins."
It is also a place where an incredulous mother recently asked a foreigner, "If your children do not believe in Camilo and Che, who do they believe in?"
The woman was referring to Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, two revolutionary icons, but her words also revealed the isolation of Cuban society, and how the revolution has defined collective thought.
A second Cuban woman described the hours and days after Castro's announcement as unsettling because this was the first time Cubans were not sure whether the old rules applied.
"I am afraid," the second woman said last week. "Now you don't know the consequences of your actions, you don't know ... if there are new rules."
But that changed quickly.
Through two brief statements attributed to Fidel Castro, other statements issued by his top advisers and monochromatic coverage by Cuba's state-run media, island residents have been assured that Castro is recuperating and in good spirits. Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage said Sunday in Bolivia that Fidel Castro would be back at work "in a few weeks."
On news broadcasts, public affairs shows and in the Communist Party's daily newspaper, Cuban authorities have described Raul Castro as a lifelong revolutionary who will hold the fort until his older brother recovers, or carry on as president should Fidel die.
Cubans have been told that the revolution will continue and that Cubans should prepare for possible attack by the U.S.
Government-organized rallies and other events familiar to every Cuban have hammered home these points along with the message that everything in Cuba is "normal."
"There is a script and the script has already been written in the last several days," said the second woman. "It has a monotonous rhythm to it that I can recognize. That's why people are calmer. Now they are in a comfort zone."
Praise for Castro
Angel Perez, a 62-year-old retiree selling peanuts along with the Malecon, said Castro has done much to help the poor.
Perez thanked the revolution for providing him with a home, furniture and a television set. Perez said that he had intestinal surgery in 1994 and didn't have to pay a dime.
"I didn't have to pay for the medicine either," said Perez. "I love the revolution because it's done so much for the poor."
This attitude is typical among older Cubans who recall the difficulties before the revolution.
But during a Saturday evening stroll along the Malecon, with crowds drinking rum, singing or just watching the water lap up against the seawall, it was often hard to discern who was telling the truth and who was following the script.
"Fidel is the only father that Cubans have," said a man named Javier who was sitting on the seawall snuggled next to his girlfriend. "He fought the revolution so that the people could have liberty and peace. We are not afraid of anyone."
But when asked to give his last name, Javier smiled and turned away, saying, "That's enough."
Another man sitting alone on the seawall motioned to wave off an approaching reporter. "It's too dangerous to talk," he said.
Rogelio Piloto Diaz, the soldier, said he was born under the revolution and knew little else. "I don't know what would happen to me and my family if there was change," he said. "I'm afraid of it."
The crowd thinned where the Malecon approached a box-shaped building with a giant red-neon electronic message board across its fifth floor--the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
"During this time of change, all Cubans should know that your best friend is the United States of America," read the scroll, which also repeated President Bush's pledge to support those fighting for democracy in Cuba.
One of the few people reading the ticker was a 50-year-old electrician named Pedro who said he was so fed up that he didn't care what happened to him.
"I hope the U.S. can help us," he said. "This is a military dictatorship and everyone is afraid."