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Reaction Mixed to Castro’s Turnover of Power

August 1, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Cuba’s Fidel Castro relinquishes power, at least for now. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a letter read on state television last night by his spokesman, Fidel Castro described his illness as an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding. The 79-year-old Cuban leader said he would need several weeks of rest and temporarily cede power to his younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

He blamed the illness on stress from recent public appearances, including a visit to Argentina last week.

Castro seized control of the island nation 90 miles south of Florida in 1959. Despite American embargoes and efforts to overthrow or kill him, he’s outlasted nine American presidents.

Some residents of Havana expressed sorrow today.

CUBAN RESIDENT (through translator): They must do all they can to cure him. He’ll get better. God is with him.

CUBAN RESIDENT (through translator): All of the good things that he has done he will continue to do, because we hope he will recover.

JEFFREY BROWN: But residents of Miami’s Little Havana were overjoyed.

LITTLE HAVANA RESIDENT: It may mark the beginning of a change in Cuba, which is what we all want.

LITTLE HAVANA RESIDENT: The Cubans that just got here and the Cubans that are still over there need to unite and come together. This is our time, and this is the time for democracy. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. wants a democratic Cuba.

SEAN MCCORMACK, State Department Spokesman: We have made clear our policy with respect to Cuba stands. You know, we fully support a democratic, free, prosperous Cuba in which the Cuban people have the opportunity to, through the ballot box, choose who will lead them, not have their leaders imposed upon them.

Fidel Castro's health

JEFFREY BROWN: Castro turns 80 on August 13 but has postponed a planned celebration until December.

And for more, we're joined from Miami by Tim Padgett, Time magazine's Latin American correspondent.

Tim, there's some disparity in reports I've seen. Is anything known about the surgery, how serious it is, or even whether it's in fact taken place yet?

TIM PADGETT, Time Magazine: Well, we're fairly certain that it's taken place. Cuban officials that we've spoken to today indicated to us that they're fairly certain that the surgery took place early yesterday morning and that Fidel decided later on, after he began recuperating or convalescing, to issue this communique, because he knew that, given the serious nature of the intestinal bleeding and the serious nature of the surgery performed, that he was going to have a long convalescence period and he would have to be out of sight, out of public sight for quite a while, and that he would need to come out and say, "I'm giving the reins to Raul for as long as it takes me to get over this."

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there any way of knowing at this point how long this temporary handover of power might be?

TIM PADGETT: No. As I said, it all depends on how long it takes him to convalesce. One of the things that I think struck me and a lot of other correspondents today was this serious sort of announcement, I mean, you know, that he's ceding power to someone else -- this is something he's never done in all of the 47 years he's been in power -- this sort of important announcement is very uncharacteristic, that he would allow an aide to make that announcement on the air.

And so, if he were still alive, really, why would he not do it himself? And Cuban officials indicated that, given the very sensitive nature of the surgery and the very serious nature of the intestinal bleeding, he needs to do absolutely nothing but lie still for a few days, if not a few weeks, and that includes doing nothing, includes not even reading a communique on the air.

That, at least, was the explanation we were getting from a Cuban official there.

Raul Castro

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us a little bit about Raul Castro and the role he's played in government.

TIM PADGETT: Raul has always been Fidel's most trusted number two, ever since they were guerrillas fighting the Batista government in Sierra Maestra, Cuba, back in the 1950s.

He's also had a reputation in all of these years as sort of Fidel's enforcer, the very hard-line, ideological communist who has always been Fidel's watchdog for the communist regime there.

And it's a reputation that he began building fairly early on in the revolution when, for example, he sort of took over as Fidel's military right-hand man and oversaw the summary execution of soldiers, for example, who were loyal to Batista, the dictator that Fidel's revolution overthrew in 1959.

So he's always had this reputation, as I said, as sort of a hard-line enforcer for Fidel, and that's one reputation that, in recent months, Fidel's government has been trying to soften with a sort of P.R. makeover.

You're seeing long articles in the official newspaper, Granma, for example, that have been trying to present Raul's more warm and fuzzy side as a family man and a grandfather, trying to build a little bit more of a human connection between Raul and the Cuban population that Fidel has had sort of a mystical bond with that Raul has just never had.

The next step

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, all of this, of course, raises questions of a possible succession. Raul is himself 75 years old. Is it known whether there is a younger generation ready to step in or might this lead to some kind of power vacuum, at least down the line?

TIM PADGETT: No, Fidel has made it very clear that Raul will be his successor, if Raul is still alive when Fidel passes away. And even behind Raul are perhaps older people, like Carlos Lage, the current vice president of Cuba, who are not part of this younger generation of Cubans who are fiercely loyal to Fidel and are so ideologically pure in their communism that they're sort of derisively known among many Cubans as Los Taliban.

And it's going to be a big question to see whether there's going to be any friction between the sort of older guard that Raul and people like Carlos Lage represent and the younger, more fiercely ideological guard represented, for example, by figures like Felipe Perez Roque, the foreign minister, who is only 40 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: So in the meantime, what were you hearing from sources in the U.S., in Miami or in Washington, about what's happening here to prepare for any possible next step?

TIM PADGETT: Well, I think there's sort of a public and a private side to the U.S. reaction to this. Publicly, the Bush administration, especially, which was very anti-Castro, would prefer not to see Raul take over when Fidel passes away.

On the other hand, one thing privately that U.S. officials have long told us that they don't want to see is a chaotic vacuum of power existing there when Fidel dies, because if one thing is always spooked U.S. administrations, as much as Fidel Castro himself, it's the prospect of tens of thousands of Cubans rafting onto the beaches of south Florida because of chaotic unrest in Cuba after Fidel is gone.

And so I think there's this sort of dual response that you're going to be seeing more of, and that's why I think during -- this period is actually very helpful to U.S. officials because, while Raul has the reins of power in Cuba, it's going to give them a little bit more of a chance to see if he really is the more practical politician, the more practical communist that Fidel never was.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Tim Padgett of Time magazine thanks very much.

TIM PADGETT: Thank you.