August 4, 2006

Castro stays out of public view

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States urged Cubans on Friday
to seize the opportunity to rid themselves of Communist rule as
ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his designated successor
and brother Raul remained out of public view, fueling anxiety
over what could happen in the next days or weeks.

Cuba's health minister said Castro, who has ruled the
island nation of 11 million people for nearly half a century,
was recovering from surgery and would be back in the saddle

In the meantime, his younger brother Raul was in firm
control of the nation and its military, state media said.

Monday's shock news that Castro, 79, had handed over power
temporarily to Raul after surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding
spurred speculation on whether his reign was about to end.

It was the first time that Castro, an instantly
recognizable figure on the world stage who is loved and loathed
across the globe, has delegated power to anyone else since his
guerrilla army overthrew a dictatorship in 1959.

In a message beamed to Cuba on Friday evening, U.S.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Cubans now was the
time to push for a new, democratic leadership.

"We will stand with you to secure your rights -- to speak
as you choose, to think as you please, to worship as you wish,
and to choose your leaders, freely and fairly, in democratic
elections," she said in a broadcast on the U.S.-funded Radio
Marti network.

The United States and Castro have been foes for decades and
the bearded revolutionary has survived CIA assassination bids,
invasion attempts, Cold War crises and an economic embargo.

Although it has announced big plans for its role in a
post-Castro Cuba, including advisors and millions of dollars in
aid, the Bush administration on Friday dismissed the idea that
the United States might take advantage of the uncertainty and
invade the island lying just 90 miles from its shores.

Rice urged the release of political prisoners and a swift
transition to multi-party elections.

"Throughout this time of change, all of you must know that
you have no greater friend than the United States of America,"
she said in the broadcast.

It was not known how many Cubans actually heard it as Radio
and TV Marti are jammed by a Cuban government that brands the
United States an exploiter and repressor of the Third World.


Cuban officials have already dismissed similar U.S.
exhortations as unacceptable and on the streets of Havana, some
expressed an aversion to a heavy-handed American role in any

"We don't want the Americans involved here," said Ulises, a
student. "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.

Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer, visiting a
Cuban-assisted hospital in rural Guatemala, told local radio
that Castro was on the road to recovery and "will be back with
us soon."

The Communist Party newspaper Granma said Raul Castro was
"firmly at the helm" but gave few other details about the exact
state of affairs in the leadership.

In Miami, home to many thousands of Cuban exiles and
immigrants who yearn for Fidel Castro's demise, his estranged
sister said she and all Cubans wanted more news of his health.

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

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

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.