Monday, September 11, 2006

Fears of war put Cubans on edge

www.kansas.com

Posted on Mon, Sep. 11, 2006

By Doreen Hemlock

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

(MCT)

HAVANA - When the 57-year-old office cleaner heard Fidel Castro had undergone surgery and temporarily transferred power to his brother Raul, she worried the United States might invade her homeland.

"I thought if Fidel dies, there could be war. Because that's what the Americans want - to control Cuba," said gray-haired Marta Rodriguez of Havana, recalling the stunning announcement of Fidel's illness made July 31 on Cuban TV.

For nearly 50 years, Cuba's communist government has repeatedly warned of U.S. threats to take over the island, citing examples of U.S. acquisition plans in the 1800s to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the Bush administration's new policy of pre-emptive strikes.

Now, as state media raises the specter of U.S. annexation to create "Havami," many Cubans wonder what their future might hold without Fidel at the helm. Few expect major changes from their own government any time soon.

Almost six weeks after Raul temporarily took Cuba's reins, nothing seems changed except perhaps the mobilization of tens of thousands of reservists to counter potential U.S. aggression.

"Everything's normal, same as before," said Ariel Dross, 32, peering out of sunglasses under a straw hat as he took tourists on horse and carriage rides in Old Havana. "And a government under Raul? They're brothers, with the same ideology."

A few blocks away, Clara Aleida Labrada summed up a common sentiment on Cuba's outlook, as she sold hand-knit bags and hats to tourists on a cobblestone street.

"We have to wait and see," said Labrada, 71. When the news broke on July 31, she was talking on the phone with her daughter Maritza, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., and she peered out the window to check for upheaval. She found none. "Everything is tranquil."

Raul is generally expected to stay the course, while 80-year-old Fidel convalesces. Replacing Fidel won't be easy. Even Cubans with complaints about the world's longest serving leader recognize Fidel's guerilla bravery, oratory prowess and charisma. And there's pride in how Fidel in five decades in power has kept Cuba - a Caribbean nation of less than 12 million people - a noted player on the world stage.

Residents in country villages are especially loyal, even when their living standards are often lower than those in more cosmopolitan Havana.

"Fidel for us is like a father," said Mireya Echevarria, 33, a cafeteria worker in a village in Matanzas province, east of Havana. "When I heard about the surgery, I felt very sad. Tears streamed down my face," she said, her face flushing with color and her eyes welling up.

Just how long Raul might stay a caretaker is anyone's guess. Fidel appears to be recovering well, but his condition is regarded a state secret - irking many residents who want more information about him.

Should a new government take over permanently, Cubans routinely say they want to keep the gains of Fidel's revolution, such as free education, socialized medicine and programs that guarantee milk for all children. They want a system made by Cubans themselves, not imported from the United States or elsewhere. And they appeal for gradual change, prioritizing peace as state media drums about U.S. military threats.

"I hope there's not a war," said Blanca Ruiz, 49, an employee at a government bread kiosk that dispenses one roll per person a day as part of the state's subsidized ration program. "We'd be fighting our own family. There are so many Cubans living in the United States."

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Wow! Very rarely does one see an American news media article about Cuba like this one. Usually it is whine and criticize.

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