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Castro’s long goodbye stirs mixed feelings in Cuba

Castro’s long goodbye stirs mixed feelings in Cuba
By Marc Lacey
The New York Times

In his day, Fidel Castro was Cuba’s talk show host as well as its
president, with his frequent long speeches broadcast into homes on radio
and television and serving as something akin to background music in
Cubans’ lives.

He did not need guests to fill his time slot. Anything that popped into
his head was material, whether it was his reflections on Cuban history,
his outrages at Washington or a meandering story that left audiences
scratching their heads.

Now, though, Castro, Cuba’s ailing leader, is silent, leaving a gap on
state-run broadcasts and confused audiences.

On Saturday, the final day of a weeklong birthday celebration for the
80-year-old Castro, Cubans expected one last discourse. But he was a
no-show at a military parade that capped the week of festivities. That
left many Cubans convinced that their leader of nearly half a century
had delivered his last speech.

“The old man is as weak as me,” said a man in his 70s who sells copies
of the Communist Party newspaper from the wheelchair he has used since
losing a leg to gangrene. “I will outlast him.”

Castro last addressed Cubans on July 26, then slipped out of view for
several days. On July 31, he announced in a statement that he had had
abdominal surgery several days before and that his 75-year-old brother,
Raúl, would take over as president while he recuperated.

Castro’s illness, details of which are still regarded as a state secret,
has awakened Cubans to the notion of life without the only leader most
of them have ever known. Life, defenders and critics of his rule agree,
is likely to continue largely as it has, only with a new Castro, at the
top of the Communist Party organizational chart.

“Nothing has changed for us,” said José, 38, a mechanic who opened the
refrigerator in his tiny, rundown apartment this week to show three
shriveled tomatoes, three pieces of garlic and little else. “Every day
will continue to be a struggle.”

Castro’s Cuba is very much a work in progress. Its education and health
care systems are universal, but socialism has not wiped out classism or
racism, freedom to speak out is clearly restricted and life for most
people is humble, at best.

Castro’s popularity stems in large part from his long standoff with the
United States.

A variety of concerts, conferences and other tributes in the past week
have had the feeling of a long goodbye. Castro’s death, which opponents
in the United States had predicted for years was imminent, is now widely
assumed among Cubans to be looming.

The festivities included Saturday’s parade, when Raúl was the only
Castro to speak.

In a 20-minute address, he railed at the American government, condemning
the war in Iraq and suggesting that Cuba would negotiate with Washington
only on equal terms.

“After almost half a century, we are willing to wait patiently until the
moment when common sense prevails in the Washington power circles,” he said.

The parade drew people from around the world, including such notables as
Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel prize-winning author from Colombia;
Daniel Ortega, the president-elect of Nicaragua; Evo Morales, the
president of Bolivia; and the French actor Gérard Depardieu.

When he does die, Fidel Castro’s illness has shown that he will not
disappear altogether.

Billboards of his likeness and his words have been erected around Cuba,
posted after the country learned he was sick. Television has been
showing biographical sketches of him and snippets of speeches from the past.

Castro even continues to speak in the pages of the government newspaper
Granma, which is churning out a serialized version of several long
interviews he gave a French academic in recent years.

“The enemies of the Cuban revolution are counting the minutes waiting
and hoping that he dies, without understanding that Fidel no longer is
Fidel,” Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque said Thursday at an academic
conference devoted to Castro, the bearded former guerrilla fighter.

“Now, he is the people, and he is every man and woman prepared to fight
for the idea that a better world is possible,” said Pérez Roque, who was
for years Castro’s personal secretary.

While insisting that Castro would recover, Pérez Roque described a
post-Castro Cuba in which the ideals he spoke of in his many long
addresses over the years would endure.

“When he and the men of his generation are no longer with us, we have
the conviction that our people will have made those ideas and principles
theirs forever,” he said.

But Castro’s long-winded days are almost surely in the past. Brian
Latell, a former C.I.A. analyst who specialized in Cuba, describes in
his book “After Fidel” one speech from 1968, during a political purge on
the island, that went on for 12 hours.

“Probably no other human in any line of work has ever been recorded
uttering such avalanches of words,” wrote Latell, who sifted through
many of Castro’s thousands of speeches over the years in search of clues
on his thinking.

On the streets, people speak of him fondly one minute, then whisper
criticism of his rule. Saying his name is not necessary – they sometimes
merely stroke an imaginary beard. Opinions are often a jumble of
contradictions.

“I don’t have a bad opinion of him, but he has us like we’re in jail,”
said Mario Gutiérrez, 19, a rap singer.

José, the mechanic, who provided only his first name out of fear his
comments could run afoul of the authorities, said Castro had become a
father figure to Cubans – even those who are dissatisfied with their
everyday lives and blame him. “Our father is dying, and that’s sad, even
though we want him to go.”

http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/12/02/america/web.1202castro.php

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