Friday, August 11, 2006

No panic in Havana

New York Daily News

By Albor Ruiz

Havana is as charming as usual and Cubans are going about their business without any noticeable change because of the health problems of Fidel Castro, the man who has ruled their country for 47 years.

It may not be earthshaking news, but that was what I saw in Havana during the four days - Aug. 2 to 5 - that I spent in Cuba's capital city.

The Daily News sent me to Cuba to find out what was really going on (Was Castro dead? Were Cubans about to rise up?) after the surprising news of "El Comandante's" emergency surgery circled the world.

Another surprise was that, for the first time in half a century, Castro - who turns 80 on Sunday - had transferred power, albeit temporarily, to another person, in this case his brother Raúl, 75, Cuba's first vice president and minister of defense.

This scenario was never envisioned by the White House or by the ultraconservative Cuban-Americans who practically dictate U.S. policy toward Cuba. Every plan, every idea, every wishful thought contemplated a change of power in Cuba after the death of Castro, not before.

"What no one thought would happen - a transfer of power in Cuba with Fidel alive - just took place," Miami radio commentator Francisco Aruca told CNN.

Cubans, of course, express concern about the ability of the younger Castro - not as well-known an entity as his charismatic brother - to run the country. But if Castro's health condition has provoked a crisis - political or any kind - there are no visible signs of it in the streets of Havana. Actually, what is most striking these days in Cuba's capital is how normal things are.

There is no increased police presence. Tourists from Japan, Sweden and Argentina calmly walk around Old Havana with their digital cameras, and Cubans express more concern about the well-being of "Fidel" than about potential disruptions in the future of their nation.

Paradoxically, as Ramona Terry, 62, a grandmother and retired civil engineer, said outside the Hotel Habana Libre, "The big news in Cuba today is that there is no news."

The real big news, of course, had already happened. Castro had an emergency intestinal operation for an unspecified illness that made him cede power to his younger brother.

Yet Terry was on to something. Washington's and Miami's long-standing predictions of chaos, massive popular uprisings and a gigantic boat exodus once Castro was no longer in power turned out to be flat wrong; nothing of the sort has happened.

Ten days have gone by since Castro's operation was announced and life goes on in Cuba with no more and no fewer problems than usual.

But during these last 10 days, something has become clear: Succession plans in Cuba already were in place. Castro's illness has served as a dress rehearsal of sorts for when he is no longer around, although at the moment it seems that he is recovering quickly.

It is also clear that after Fidel, Cuba will be ruled by a collective government in which Raúl will not be the only player.

Carlos Lage, a vice president in charge of the economy; Felipe Pérez Roque, the young foreign minister, and Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly and an expert on the U.S., will probably share power and responsibility.

Ask any Cuban in the streets of Havana about U.S. plans to "usher democracy" into their country, and more often than not you will get a curt: "Like in Iraq?"

Visions of apocalyptic scenarios have obviously been proven wrong, and Washington should shelve the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and its misguided report. Leave Cuba alone to decide its own future once and for all.

Originally published on August 10, 2006

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