Life Sans Castro Leaves Cubans Tense

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During four decades of Fidel Castro's one-man rule, Cubans learned to keep their political views private. But as Castro remains sidelined by illness, many on the island are clearly nervous about the future.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This week, world leaders from more than 100 countries were in Havana for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, the fourteenth since that movement was founded during the Cold War.

Cuba will now lead the group for the next three years. Its president, Fidel Castro, is a big booster of the Non-Aligned Movement, but he did not make an appearance at this week's summit. Cuban officials said Castro's doctors told him he needed more time to recover from his recent surgery.

NPR's Tom Gjelten covered the summit. I asked him about the significance of Castro's failure to appear.

TOM GJELTEN: What it means is that he's not doing as well as they hoped he would be doing. He did receive the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, in his hospital room. Kofi Annan said he spent an hour with Fidel, that he was in good spirits, had a good firm handshake.

But Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez also went to visit him and an old Argentine friend. But that was it. There weren't any other dignitaries who were able to go visit him.

The pictures that came out of these meetings showed him pretty frail, unsteady. He was standing, but he had to lean on a table, so he's evidently a pretty sick man. And people who know about his condition still say he's in a battle, which means that the - I guess the prognosis for his recovery is uncertain.

ELLIOTT: From the outside, it appears that Cuba is in a place of transition right now. Is that the way that the Cuban people view this?

GJELTEN: Actually, no, Debbie. There's just been very little reaction.

I was at the airport the other night with a lot of Cubans, when the news came on showing video of Fidel meeting with Hugo Chavez. And amazingly, there was just no reaction at all, no trace of emotion, no whispering, no snickering, no expressions of concern. Just blank faces. You just had no idea what the people were thinking when they looked at this.

And I think that's kind of symbolic. The Cuban people over the years have just become really inscrutable, and it's hard to get any sense of what they might be thinking internally.

ELLIOTT: Is there any hope that whoever might come after Castro could bring reform?

GJELTEN: Sure there is. But there's also, I think, a lot of anxiety about what that change might involve.

One person that I talked to, who I would have expected to be quite excited about the prospect of change, told me he's actually really worried about it. And one of the reasons is that he has seen a lot of mobilization, a lot of reservists, militia people being called up. That makes him really nervous. That makes him wonder what might actually happen during a period of big change.

You know, there has been, among analysts, a lot of speculation that there will be pressure on whoever takes charge after Fidel to improve the quality of life for people here. Because whoever follows will lack Fidel's ability to communicate with the people, to manage expectations, to be a leader in any sense. And without that capacity, whoever governs Cuba next, I think, will have to deliver improvements in the quality of life.

But in the short term, there could very well be a hardening of the situation here and more repression.

One of the things I noticed among all the Cuban leaders who spoke this week was that they consistently took a pretty hard line. Raoul Castro, Fidel's brother and the man who's the designated successor, was the one who presided over this meeting. He's someone, for example, who has had the reputation in recent years of being in favor of reform and even possibly in favor of better relations with the United States.

But the speech he delivered at this summit meeting was as hardline as any speech I've ever heard Fidel give.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Tom Gjelten in Havana. Thanks.

GJELTEN: You're welcome.

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