Friday, August 4, 2006 · Last updated 11:57 a.m. PT
By VANESSA ARRINGTON
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
HAVANA -- Park cleaner Froilan Mezquia sleeps in the shed where he stores his supplies and hasn't had a real meal in three days. The 62-year-old also received years of free medical treatment for throat cancer.
In Cuba's communist society, where every day is a struggle but survival is practically guaranteed, Mezquia's story helps explain why people didn't flood the streets clamoring for change when Fidel Castro stepped down for surgery this week.
The reasons Cubans took the events in such stride are complex. Castro supporters say it's because of Cubans' deep belief in socialist ideals; detractors say it's all about fear. Conviction and dread aside, many Cubans find genuine comfort in the communist system, and reject U.S.-style democracy and values.
"I could go to the United States, or I could go to Mexico," said the slight Mezquia, smoking a cigarette on gazebo steps next to his garbage-collecting cart. "But I was born here, and here is where I'll die."
Mezquia's former wife and four children live in Mexico, and from what he hears, capitalist countries are filled with cruelty, hardship - and certainly no free health care.
"They pay you more, but you must spend so much more just to live," he said.
Cubans who have left the island come back to visit relatives laden with gifts and goods, symbols of the material wealth to be found beyond Cuba's borders. But they also speak of people working multiple jobs just to get by and of people who don't know their neighbors - foreign concepts in Cuba.
When outsiders think of Cuba, it's often the lack of political freedoms and economic power that comes to mind. Cubans who have chosen to stay on the island, however, are quick to point out the positives: safe streets, a rich and accessible cultural life, a leisurely lifestyle to enjoy with family and friends.
There are, of course, hundreds of dissidents and political prisoners on the island of 11 million who abhor the system and feel a desperate need for rapid change. But most Cubans would not list political repression among their most immediate concerns.
For all its flaws, life in Castro's Cuba has its comforts, and unknown alternatives are not automatically more attractive. The idea of Cuba without "El Comandante," who has been in power for nearly five decades, provokes alarm and uncertainty - and a tremendous fear they could lose their way of life.
"For me, this is very painful," Mezquia said of this week's events. The 79-year-old Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul on Monday night after surgery to repair internal bleeding. Details were not made public, but Cuba's health minister said Friday that Castro was "recovering satisfactorily."
Drew Blakeney, spokesman for the U.S. mission in Havana, acknowledged that Cubans are fearful of change.
"This is something totally new and disorienting for them," he said. "There seems to be a lot of fear, and a lot of worry, after 47 years of constant rule by one person."
Indeed, though Mezquia believes Raul Castro will follow the same political line as his brother, he fears things will never be the same if Fidel fails to return to power.
"There is only one Fidel Castro," he said. "He is the one who was born with the ideals that made Cuba."
Many foreigners consider it propaganda when Castro's government enumerates its accomplishments, but many Cubans take pride in their free education system, high literacy rates and top-notch doctors. Ardent Castro supporters say life in the United States, in contrast, seems selfish, superficial, and - despite its riches - ultimately unsatisfying.
"Socialism is superior to capitalism. It's much more humane," said retiree Luis Poey, 66, whose last job was delivering food to workers in Old Havana.
These Cubans even defend their system as a democracy in which the National Assembly and provincial and city leaders are directly elected. Assembly members then elect one of their own to be president of the country - Castro, a representative from the eastern city of Santiago, has repeatedly won out.
Castro's critics say the notion that Cuba is democratic is a farce - that tight state control, a heavy police presence and neighborhood-watch groups reporting on "anti-revolutionary" conduct prevent any real political freedom.
Some Cubans retort that a system allowing President Bush to "steal" elections and wage wars without the people's support is certainly more flawed than their own.
Even the dissidents have seemed a bit bewildered this week, saying they need to "wait and see" what Fidel Castro's temporary exit means.
Meanwhile, both Castros have been out of sight, with a continued focus by state-run news media on Fidel's recovery, rather than Raul's stewardship.
For Mezquia, Fidel Castro is Cuba, a link that won't be easily erased.
"Raul Castro will give no speeches until Fidel Castro decides it's time," Mezquia said. "I think even after he dies, Fidel Castro will still be in charge."