In Cuba, hope leavened by caution

  • Article by: MIKE WILLIAMS , Cox News Service
  • Updated: February 23, 2008 - 5:55 PM

Many believe that Raul Castro, 76, will be named today to take over from his ailing, 81-year-old brother, Fidel.

HAVANA - A few blocks from Havana's famed seaside walk, the Malecon, couples stroll hand in hand in the cool evening breeze. Children jabber as they rush to an ice cream stand, while nearby an elderly lady peddles popcorn in plastic bags to teens and toddlers.

All seems calm here, but the soft wind blowing in from the Florida Straits carries a hint of change across Cuba. After nearly 50 years of Fidel Castro's unwavering hand, the National Assembly will name a new leader today, setting this Communist island on what could become an unfamiliar course.

A bookseller hawking stained pamphlets of Castro's famous speeches swears nothing in Cuba has changed, despite last week's announcement that Castro was retiring.

"Fidel's ideas will live forever because they are the words of the poor against the rich," he said, declining like many here to give his name to a stranger. "Cuba was at peace Tuesday morning when he retired, and the streets will remain calm."

That notion was reinforced Saturday when Castro, in a front-page article in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, rejected speculation from abroad that his retirement after 49 years at Cuba's helm would lead to a political shift.

"The reality is otherwise," Castro wrote under his new title of "Comrade Fidel." He pointed to news articles that said U.S. officials had failed in their attempts to influence the transition.

But it is clear that the news of impending change at the top after so many years has stirred a deep curiosity among the Cuban people.

Most expect the new leader will be Raul Castro, 76, Fidel's younger brother and designated successor, who has ruled since the elder Castro, 81, fell ill 19 months ago.

Some believe the post-Fidel era began then, and many are relieved it wasn't marked by protests or uncertainty.

But others profess to cautious optimism, saying they can't help but feel intrigued as they watch a new chapter in their nation's history unfold.

"Everyone knows it will be Raul, there's no doubt about that," said Tony Gomez, a taxi driver. "But the people are waiting with curiosity. They have a feeling there will be changes.

"Cuba is a country rich in spirit and beauty and climate, but the economic situation is difficult. Raul knows that. The people want better living conditions. They hope this will come."

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