Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cubans still getting used to Fidel's silence

Cubans still getting used to Fidel's silence

By Jeff FranksWed Nov 22, 2:05 PM ET

A silence has settled over Cuban political life that ordinary Cubans find at once disconcerting and a big relief.

After decades of delivering long and frequent speeches, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has virtually disappeared while recovering from surgery and been replaced by his much more reticent brother Raul.

Now Castro's diatribes no longer interrupt regular programming on Cuban television and he does not hold center stage in the national limelight.

Castro, 80, has not been seen except for a few photographs and videos since announcing on July 31 that he had an intestinal operation and put Raul temporarily in control of the communist country he has run since a 1959 revolution.

Cubans say they are not sure what to make of it.

"He was the person who defined everything for us. Now nobody is saying anything, which makes me wonder what is going to happen next," said security guard Ernesto Valdares, 34.

"There are no speeches, nothing. It's very different," said a woman who would only give her first name, Dora.

Many people in Cuba quickly tell a visitor that they are "Fidelistas," or Fidel Castro supporters. But in the same breath they deny any interest in politics. They vow eternal support for Fidel Castro and say Raul does not inspire the same passion because he lacks charisma.


But even some Fidelistas admit that Castro's silence has its good side.

"To tell you the truth, it's a relief not to have him talking so much. He was on television all the time," said Dora.

In contrast, Raul Castro has kept a low profile, only occasionally showing up at public events and keeping his comments, if any, brief.

Analysts speculate that Raul Castro, 75, is staying in the shadows out of deference to his brother and because he is a behind-the-scenes technocrat by nature. He has been Cuba's defense minister since 1959 and is credited with building the military into one of the country's most efficient institutions.

What follows this period of peace and quiet is the question of the hour in Cuba.

A clerk in a Havana clothing store, who gave only Ernesto as his name, said he expects everything to go on as before, whether Fidel Castro dies or recovers.

"The people on top don't want anything to change. They're doing well," he said.

But Valdares said he thinks a new government will be compelled to do something to improve Cuba's creaking economy, where the average Cuban makes the equivalent of just $15 a month and needs government food rations to get by.

"I'm very proud to be a Cuban and I'm happy with the way things are, but we need more money. If Raul takes over for Fidel, he'll have to make some changes," he said.

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