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Uncertainty Continues in Cuba Ahead of Castro's 80th Birthday

  • Lisa Ferdinando

Cuban President Fidel Castro, who turns 80 on Sunday, has not been seen publicly since the announcement nearly two weeks ago that he underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding and temporarily transferred power to his brother, Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro.

Celebrations that had been planned in Cuba for the milestone birthday have been rescheduled for December 2, the 50th anniversary of Mr. Castro's landing in Cuba for the revolt that eventually overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Cuban state-run media have carried stories of well-wishers calling for a speedy recovery for the long-time leader, but absent from any announcement are details of his condition or whereabouts.

Mr. Castro has been an irritant to the United States for decades. Last month, Washington released a plan for an $80 million program to support an eventual transition to democracy in Cuba.

President Bush earlier this week underscored Washington's wish for political change.

"Our desire is for the Cuban people to be able to choose their own form of government, and we would hope that, and we'll make this very clear, that as Cuba has the possibility of transforming itself from a tyrannical situation to a different type of society, the Cuban people ought to decide," he said.

Mr. Castro toppled Batista in 1959, and soon began nationalizing industries and seizing U.S. properties. The United States responded with an economic embargo, broke off diplomatic ties and supported the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of the island. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a dispute with the Soviet Union over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, almost led to a nuclear war.

"There is no question that we have to take a look at Fidel, the legacy that he established and will leave behind is this island in the Caribbean that has survived the Cold War and withstood for almost 50 years a challenge to the United States," says Andy Gomez, an assistant provost and senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.

The news of Mr. Castro's ill health was cause for celebration among Cuban exiles in Miami. Rumors and speculation spread wildly, and members of that community, young and old, said they were certain the leader was dead or, at the very least, too ill to continue his 47-year-long rule.

The exiles have described Mr. Castro's designated successor, Raul, as ruthless. Blanca Garcia was in Miami's Cuban neighborhood of Little Havana one evening selling books, including one on freedom for Cuba that she collaborated on with her husband.

"We don't want Raul. We don't want any transition [to Raul]. We want democracy in Cuba," she said.

Raul has also stayed out of sight since the transfer of power. Ian Vásquez of the Cato Institute in Washington says it is unclear what is happening on the Communist-run island.

"It's anybody's guess, because it's a closed society," he said. "You really can't tell what's going on, and that opens up the possibility of unpredictable developments."

The celebrations in Little Havana have since died down, and the experts and exiles say all they can do is wait, as they have for so many years, to see what happens next.

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