As Castro Turns 81, Little Change in Cuba

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Fidel Castro turns 81 on Monday. It has been a little over a year since Cuba's leader ceded power to his brother, Raul, and he has not made any public appearances since. Despite fears that Cuba might collapse without Fidel Castro, the transition of power has proceeded quietly and without incident.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

JAMES HATTORI, host:

And I'm James Hattori.

Fidel Castro turns 81 today. It's been more than a year since the ailing Cuban leader turned over power to his brother Raul. And he hasn't made any public appearances since.

BRAND: Fidel has traditionally marked the anniversary of the revolution on July 26th with an address to the Cuban people. But this year, for the first time it was Raul who spoke.

President RAUL CASTRO (Cuba): (Through translator) These have been difficult months, although with an effect that is diametrically opposed to the one our enemies expected, who dreamt that chaos would be unleashed and Cuban socialism would end in collapse.

BRAND: Joining us to talk about the changes in Cuba over the past year is NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Hi, Lourdes.

BRAND: Hi.

BRAND: So it's been a year since Raul has been the acting president of Cuba. Has he shown any signs of wanting to take the country in a different direction?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think the most crucial thing he's done so far is provide stability. There was this idea that Cuba would collapse without Fidel. And that's proven not to be the case. In fact, the transition of power has proceeded quietly and without incident.

Raul has been talking about economic reform. Still, so far those reforms have only been minor. For example, restrictions have been lifted on imports of auto parts and domestic appliances. But economic reforms should not be confused with political opening. There has been no such thing in Cuba. In fact, things are as controlled as they ever have been. And so life pretty much is the same, I think, for Cubans. The rhetoric has changed. But so far we haven't really seen any evidence that life on the ground for actual Cubans has changed.

BRAND: How has the rhetoric changed with regards to the United States? What is Raul saying that's different than what Fidel has been saying?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't think that Raul is saying anything different than what Fidel has saying. I mean, you know, certainly in several of his speeches he's sort of extended this olive branch to the United States, saying you know, why can't we have a cordial and civil discussion?

But I think at the end of the day, you know, the present administration has a firm policy, which is backed by law, that says it cannot engage with either of the Castro brothers. And it hasn't. The embargo is still firmly in place. And so - I think that there's an - a clear acknowledgement and it has been stated by many within the Cuban administration, but they don't expect any of the relations to thaw with this present administration.

BRAND: And what about Cubans? What do they think of Raul?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Raul is a very different kind of leader than Fidel. When I was there for the May Day march, for example, on May 1st, it's traditionally a moment when Fidel will give one of his hours-long speeches. Raul didn't address one single word to the crowd. He was there. He waived. But it was very much in keeping with his kind of low-key style. He's not a great orator. He's not charismatic.

That's - I think that's all the uncertainty that's followed Fidel's illness, Cuba seems to have transitioned from a country which was micromanaged by Fidel to a country where the revolution has become institutionalized in a way; power has been devolved. That means that the revolutionary legacy continues without him. It's not just about Fidel. It's about all the things that Fidel did. It's about socialism.

There was this idea among many prognosticators or many analysts on Cuba, especially the Miami Cubans, wished hopefully that all of a sudden things would just open up. But we haven't seen that at all. In fact, what we've seen is, you know, something consistent, something very quiet, a transition that seems very stable.

BRAND: And secretive because we really don't know what Fidel's condition is. And do we know for a fact that he is still alive?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think we do know that he's still alive. He has written editorials, well, purported to be by him. We have seen pictures of him. We have seen video. But he has not been seen out in public since he fell ill. And of course it is incredibly secretive.

You know, when you look at the Cuban regime, you're always sort of reading the tea leaves. You're trying to discern which direction it's headed, what it means when they say something. And Fidel's health has been treated like a state secret. And we really don't know what his mental capacity is, how involved he is in the day to day running of Cuba. And I think until perhaps he comes out in public and we hear him speak again, we really won't have those questions answered to anyone's satisfaction.

BRAND: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, joining us from Mexico City. Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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