Castro Hands over Power to Undergo Surgery

The 79-year old Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has handed over power to his younger brother, Raul, while he undergoes intestinal surgery. And while there's no indication that Castro is in failing health, the development does have many people wondering if this is the beginning of the end for the world's longest ruling dictator. Host Ed Gordon talks with BBC correspondent Steven Gibbs in Havana, Cuba.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. We'll get to our regular installment of the roundtable in just a moment. But first we wanted to get the latest news out of Cuba about the health of Communist Leader Fidel Castro.

While he recovers from surgery, the 79-year-old dictator has handed over power to his younger brother, Raul. And while there's no indication that Castro is in seriously failing health, the development does have many people wondering if this is the beginning of the end for the world's longest ruling dictator.

Joining us now, via phone, is BBC Correspondent Steven Gibbs. He joins us from Havana. Steven, the announcement was made last night on Cuban television. Americans saw the video of Cuban exiles dancing in the streets in Miami. What was the reaction of the people of Cuba?

Mr. STEVEN GIBBS (BBC Correspondent): Surprisingly, very, very calm. And I have to say here in Havana it's another normal day. People are going to work as normal, and people are expressing some concern about President Castro's health. But there's certainly not any sign of either great sadness or great joy in the streets, which is perhaps surprising considering that for the first time in 47 years, Cubans currently have a new president, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother.

GORDON: When you talk about someone who has been in power for half a century, there is this sense of almost invincibility. What of the idea of just the general people of Cuba and their thought of going on without this man at the helm?

Mr. GIBBS: Well, I think really, to be quite honest, it hasn't sunk in that he's not going to be around, certainly for the next few months. Of course, he might well be back after that. But Cubans - you're absolutely right - they've got completely used to sort of having this grandfather figure now at the helm.

And in the last few weeks as we've been building up to his 80th birthday -which was going to be celebrated on the 13th of August - I've been talking to people all over Cuba and many, many of them completely haven't gone through the thought process that one they will not have Fidel Castro at the head of this country.

They, if you ask them, what might happen to Cuba after Fidel, their response tends to be, but he's in good health. He's fine. He's going to live to be 100, 120. So here there's a big feeling that it's too early to be talking in those sort of terms. People take the government at its word and say that he's had a serious operation. He's going to take a rest, but with any luck, many people think he'll be back.

GORDON: And finally, any idea why we saw the brother, who is 75, succeed him, rather than one of the sons. Often you see a son follow the father and Fidel has six sons.

Mr. GIBBS: Well, the Cuban government would say that it's almost a coincidence that power is being handed over to Raul Castro. It's not because he's the brother of Fidel, it's because he's the most senior vice president in Cuba. And that is, according to the constitution, the man who takes over in the case that the sitting president is unable to fulfill his duties.

Raul Castro has a degree of legitimacy about him. He's the world's longest serving defense minister and he's been sitting in the wings for 47 years, and many people close to him say he has a desire to be president. So I think the idea that Fidel Castro would hand to one of his sons really would be an extreme idea, and ones that the Cuban government would complete reject.

They say this isn't about nepotism, it's just about handing over to the most senior vice president, who just happens to be the president's brother.

GORDON: Steven Gibbs of the BBC with the latest from Havana. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. GIBBS: My pleasure.

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