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.

By Leonard Doyle
Thursday 21 February 2008 01:00

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.

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