In Havana, even the future is very carefully stage-managed

Fidel Castro continued his long farewell to the Cuban people yesterday when state television prepared to broadcast an unprecedented, but carefully scripted discussion about the road ahead, now that the "Commander in Chief" has finally loosened his tenacious grip on power.

Even the daily paper Granma stayed carefully on message. The paper, run by the Communist Party, gave only second billing to the fate of the 81-year-old leader, focusing instead on a visit by a cardinal from the Vatican.


Mr Castro's resignation letter was read out on radio and television programmes on Tuesday. But whether the Cuban leader was even well enough to dictate the letter remained unclear. Because of his ill health, there are doubts that the essays published in Granma over the past year were actually written by Mr Castro.

The succession of power also appears to have been carefully scripted. Mr Castro's brother Raul, 76, is expected to be named president as soon as this Sunday. The handover to his brother will ensure that Cuba's highly effective machinery of repression continues to operate unimpeded.

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International point out that the denial of basic civil and political rights is written into Cuban law and dissent is silenced. There are heavy prison terms, threats of prosecution, harassment, or exile for those who voice dissent.

As Mr Castro's central role in Cuba drew to a close, there were few outward signs that meaningful change is on the way. The streets of Havana were quiet and no demonstrations were reported. Whatever power struggles may be going on inside the Cuban hierarchy, they are dimly understood, especially by the country's main enemy, the US.

Mr Castro's emergency surgery for abdominal pain in July 2006 led to official US speculation that he had stomach cancer and had only weeks to live. That proved as unfounded as everything the US State Department has predicted about Cuba for as long as Mr Castro has been in power.

In his letter, Mr Castro said he did not retire before now to help the Cuban government prepare the people for major changes "in the middle of the battle" with the US over Cuba's future destiny. "To prepare the people for my absence, psychologically and politically, was my first obligation after so many years of struggle," he said.

President George Bush called for free elections in Cuba. "The United States will help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty," he said. His words were not reported in Cuba, where news is carefully vetted.

In the US, where one million Cubans live in exile, there are high expectations that Mr Castro's passing on of power will lead to more openness. So far Raul Castro's reputation has been to shadow his older brother's policies while keeping a firm lid on political dissent.

Police were keeping a close watch on Havana yesterday. It is thronged with tourists at this time of the year, but locals said there was no sign that security had been stepped up.

Mr Castro's personality cult so comprehensively crushed dissent over the past 50 years that his decision to step aside was accepted with a shrug of the shoulders in Havana yesterday. Only well-known dissidents were prepared to openly express criticism. People are so cowed into submission by the Communist Party's block associations and police spies that they have learnt to express criticism by stroking an imaginary beard instead of saying Mr Castro's name in public.

The leading Cuban dissident Elizardo Sanchez dismissed the handover of power as "something expected that does nothing to change the human rights situation ... or to end the one-party state. There's no reason to celebrate." He expects Mr Castro to hold on to the levers of power from behind the scenes.

Other Cubans were more excited by the change. "He has been a terrific leader," said Jose Marrero. "I'm not sure that Raul has as much going for him as Fidel. We will miss him."

Such commentaries are common among Cubans meeting foreigners. There is never any risk in criticising Raul Castro, provided lavish praise is given to his older brother. That may soon start to change however. Raul Castro is a great admirer of the Chinese Communist Party's route to economic development and he has played a big role in attracting European companies to develop tourist resorts.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory