August 4, 2006

Castro said to be recovering, US says no invasion

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban leader Fidel Castro is recovering
from surgery and will return to office soon, the health
minister said on Friday as uncertainty grew over the future of
the island he has ruled for nearly half a century.

Castro's younger brother Raul is in firm control of the
communist country and its military while he was in hospital,
state media said.

The United States, which has tried for decades to get rid
of the unwavering revolutionary, sought to reassure Cubans it
would not take advantage of the situation and invade Cuba.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to broadcast a
"message of support" Friday night urging Cubans to stay and
work for a peaceful transition of power.

News that Castro, 79, had handed over power temporarily to
his brother on Monday after surgery for gastrointestinal
bleeding spurred speculation on whether his rigid rule was
about to end.

It was the first time since his 1959 guerrilla victory that
Castro, one of the most iconic and controversial world leaders
of the past 50 years, had delegated power to anyone else.

In Cuba, where he has dominated almost every aspect of
life, and across the Florida Straits in Miami, home to many
thousands of exiles who yearn for his demise, people have
anxiously awaited developments.

Neither Castro brother has been seen in public since his
surgery was announced and few details have been given out.

But Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer, visiting a
Cuban-assisted hospital in rural Guatemala, told local radio:
"We know Comandante Fidel will recover soon and will be back
with us soon."

The Communist Party newspaper Granma said Raul Castro was
"firmly at the helm." The newspaper also rejected calls from
President Bush for a transition to multi-party democracy.

Raul Castro, 75, lacks the charisma of his elder brother,
who turns 80 on August 13. But some Cuba watchers believe he
could open up Cuba to Chinese-style economic reforms of the
sort long resisted by his brother.


The Bush administration, which has tightened the U.S.
embargo against the island 90 miles from its shores, has called
the shift in power to Raul Castro a continuation of "autocracy"
and dismissed any chance of a warming of ties under him.

Although it has announced big plans for its role in a
post-Castro Cuba, including advisers and millions of dollars in
aid, White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed the idea that
the United States might want to invade Cuba.

"The Cubans are going to determine their destiny, the one
thing that they've been deprived of during the dictatorship of
Fidel Castro, and we hope that they're going to be able to
enjoy the freedoms they clearly want," Snow said, adding that
U.S. officials had no idea where the Castro brothers were.

Rice will appeal in her broadcast to Cubans not to risk
their lives at sea in a refugee exodus to Florida, a State
Department official said.

On the streets of Havana, some expressed an aversion to a
heavy-handed American role in any transition.

"We don't want the Americans involved here," said Ulises, a
student, drinking rum and cola in a bar. "This system has no
future, but we do not want an abrupt change, like in Iraq."

The Catholic Bishops Conference said it hoped for peace and
indicated it opposed any foreign interference.

"We ask all our communities to pray that God accompany
President Fidel Castro in his illness and illuminates those who
have received provisional government duties," it said.

In Miami, Castro's estranged sister said she wanted news of
her brother's health not just for herself but for all Cubans.

Juanita Castro, who fled her homeland to Miami more than 40
years ago and opposes the revolution, learned earlier this week
that Castro was out of intensive care but since then, nothing.

"The Cuban people, above all, need to know what is
happening with their leaders. They're crying out for news."

His estranged daughter, Alina Fernandez, who also lives in
Miami, told CNN she had heard Fidel was walking again and
recovering little by little. It was not clear how Fernandez,
who has frequently denounced her father, got her information.

Some Cubans felt the Fidel era was already ending.

"He is there, and he isn't. Nobody knows when or if he will
return, but he hasn't stopped being there. ... However, people
sense that nothing will remain the same," Miriam Leiva, a Cuban
independent journalist, wrote in the Miami Herald.