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Fidel's disappearance has Havana on edge
In the colonial-era heart of the Cuban capital, tourists milled about Wednesday snapping photos of a weathered Cuban woman puffing a cigar, while banners proclaiming, ''Viva Fidel! 80 More Years,'' hung from an occasional window.

But whether Fidel Castro will indeed make it to his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 remained far more uncertain in this city than the banners predicted.

Across the decaying neighborhoods and districts where most Havana residents live and work, life chugged on as usual, seemingly unaffected by Castro's stunning announcement Monday that he was temporarily ceding power to his brother Raúl because of a health crisis.

Manuel, a 68-year-old former mechanic who declined to give his last name, picked through a seller's blanket full of washers laid out on the ground and then reached into his pocket for a bottle of rum.

''Fidel, Raúl, it's all the same,'' he said, taking a swig. "Nothing's ever going to change.''

But many others said they felt tension -- an undercurrent strengthened when authorities ordered stepped-up patrols by neighborhood watch groups, and then announced Wednesday the suspension of the annual carnival, the city's oldest and most popular fiesta, planned for this weekend.

''There's a real calm out there, the kind of calm when you know something is about to happen but you don't know what it is -- a tranquillity everyone knows is false,'' said Miriam Leiva, a member of the dissident group Ladies in White.

But calm does not always mean support for the system.

Jorge, a car parker in Old Havana who yearns to leave for the United States, said he has stayed up for the past two nights watching footage of Miami's cheering exile crowds on CNN en Español.

''Nothing has changed,'' he said wearily, "but [the celebrations] looked good to me.''

''They're not [celebrating] here . . . but they want to be,'' said Fernando, a worker at a nearby tourist restaurant who also declined to give his last name.


A spokesman for the U.S. diplomatic mission here said that while he would not comment on Castro's health, there's a consensus emerging on the streets that the Cuban leader is ''terminally ill'' and will not return to power.

In an e-mail to The Miami Herald, U.S. Interests Section spokesman Drew Blakeney also said there had been a ''modest'' increase in security throughout Havana since Castro's announcement, and that additional police, civil-defense and military units have been called up.


Local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the pro-government neighborhood watch groups known as CDRs, and many workplaces are holding ''reaffirmation meetings'' to implore the Cuban people to keep faith in the regime, Blakeney wrote.

The CDR's national coordinator urged members to intensify their patrols, Radio Reloj reported, and the pro-government Rapid Action Brigades, used in the past to handle domestic disturbances, were placed on standby.

State-run Cuban television continued showing Tuesday night's message purportedly from Castro saying that his health was ''stable'' and that he was in good spirits. It also showed workers rallying in provinces across the island and broadcast a message from the so-called Cuban Five, convicted of spying-related charges in Miami and now serving U.S. prison sentences.

''The Five wish you well, Comandante,'' the message said.

Government-run newspapers followed the same theme.

''Fidel, Get Well,'' read the front-page headline in the Communist Party's Granma daily. ''The Revolution Will Continue While Fidel Recovers,'' proclaimed Juventud Rebelde, the Communist Youth's newspaper.

In the central region of Santa Clara, dissident Luis Ramón Hernández said by telephone that about 60 people, mostly neighborhood CDR members, had gathered in front of his house at 8 p.m. Tuesday and shouted pro-Castro slogans.

''Like they were giving me a warning, a message that I can't do anything because they will take measures immediately,'' he said, adding that his house also is being watched by what he believes to be state security agents.


U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Jeff Carter said Wednesday in Washington that U.S. intelligence agencies have seen no indication of a mass movement of Cubans to or from the United States since Castro stepped down.

Blakeney, the U.S. Interests Section spokesman, said the Cuban government "continues to absurdly insist that the United States poses an imminent danger to the Cuban people.''

To counter anti-American messages, Blakeney said the mission is broadcasting announcements from an electronic ticker on its building on Havana's Malecón seaside avenue, along with ''other means at our disposal'' to communicate with the Cuban people.

This article was reported by a Miami Herald staff writer in Havana as well as Elaine de Valle, Frances Robles and Nikki Waller in Miami. Herald translator Renato Pérez also contributed. This story was compiled by staff writer Gail Epstein in Miami.
10 Aug 2006 by admin
The Havana Journal

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