The Cuban government sought to reassure citizens after Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power for the first time in 47 years, releasing a statement from the world’s longest-serving head of government saying his health is stable, his spirits good and the defense of the island guaranteed.
His brother and designated successor, Raul Castro, remained silent and out of sight, issuing no statements of his own.
Despite the affirmations that all was well, there appeared to be an increase in police patrols in some working-class neighborhoods and coastal areas.
The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the government’s neighborhood watch group, stepped up its volunteer night patrols, and the pro-government Rapid Action Brigades — used in the past to handle civil disturbances — were placed on standby.
“The important thing is that in the country everything is going perfectly well, and will continue to do so,” said the statement by the elder Castro, who temporarily handed power to his brother on Monday night after surgery.
It was unknown when or where the surgery took place or where Castro was recovering. No images of the leader were shown.
U.S. intelligence agencies have seen “absolutely no indication” of a mass migration of Cubans to the United States as a result of the leadership change, Coast Guard Cmdr. Jeff Carter said Wednesday.
Estranged sister: ‘Sad situation’
Castro’s long-estranged sister, Juanita Castro Ruz, who left Cuba in 1964 and has not spoken to her brother for years, said Wednesday she had heard he was no longer in intensive care after his surgery, a Miami television station reported.
Juanita Castro Ruz told WTVJ television that it had been difficult watching Cuban exiles in Florida celebrate news that Fidel Castro had undergone surgery and handed over power temporarily to his brother.
“It’s a very sad situation for me because we are separated. I am separated from Fidel because of political reasons,” she said, according to the television station’s Web site.
“The last information that I received is that he’s out of intensive therapy and he’s now waiting to see what happens. But already he’s left from intensive therapy,” she added.
WTVJ reported that she said her information came from someone she spoke to in Cuba and was not an official statement from the government.
Juanita Castro, who owns a pharmacy in Miami’s plush Coral Gables neighborhood, is not viewed in Cuba as someone with access to inside information, given the decades of political disagreement with her brother.
Heightened sense of anxiety in Havana
NBC News' Mary Murray reports on the mood in the streets in Havana since Fidel Castro handed power temporarily to his brother, Raul on Monday evening.
Media focus exclusively on Castro
The focus of state media remained solely on Fidel. “Fidel, Get Well,” read a front-page headline in the Communist Party daily, Granma. “The Revolution Will Continue While Fidel Recovers,” proclaimed Juventud Rebelde, the Communist youth newspaper.
Castro, 79, acknowledged the operation was serious, saying “I cannot make up positive news.” But he said his health was “stable” and “as for my spirits, I feel perfectly fine,” according to the statement read on government television Tuesday night.
He apologized for not giving more details, but said the threat posed to his government by the U.S. means his health must be treated as “a state secret,” and he called on Cubans to remain calm as they carried out their daily routines.
“The country is prepared for its defense,” he said, apparently to assure Cubans the island was safe from potential U.S. attack.
Many of the callers to AM station known as the voice of Miami’s Cuban were ready to declare Castro dead.
Parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon dismissed such suspicions, telling the government’s Prensa Latina news service that the Cuban leader’s “final moment is still very far away.”
Still there were some signs of anxiety among Cubans.
“Everything’s normal here — for the moment,” said 41-year-old hospital worker Emilio Garcia. “But we’ve never experienced this before — it’s like a small test of how things could be without Fidel.”
The leaders of China, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia and Mexico were among many wishing Castro well. But in Washington, politicians were already speculating about a post-Castro Cuba. The European Union sent a terse get-well.
Cubans were stunned when Castro’s secretary read a letter on state television Monday night announcing their leader was temporarily turning over power to his 75-year-old brother, the island’s defense minister.
In that first letter, Castro, who turns 80 on Aug. 13, said doctors operated to repair a “sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding.”
Alarcon said Castro made a point of delegating specific responsibilities to his brother and six other leading Cuban officials when his doctors told him to rest — a decision he said was made by a man “completely conscious and able to adopt these resolutions.”
Beginning of a transition
Longtime government supporters expressed confidence the island’s current system would remain intact no matter what happens.
“Either way, the revolution has to keep going,” said retiree Santos Perez. “The revolution continues with or without Fidel. Fidel is a leader, but here there are many leaders, just like his brother.”
Cuban dissidents kept a low profile while watching for signs of Castro’s condition. They said they expected the government to be on the defensive, with a high security presence and a low tolerance for political acts.
“It’s clear that this is the start of the transition,” said activist Manuel Cuesta Morua. “This gives Cuba the opportunity to have a more rational leadership” because top leaders will be forced to work together rather than following one man.
In Washington, the State Department said it would support a democratic transition in Cuba. “We believe that the Cuban people aspire and thirst for democracy,” spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Several hundred government supporters who gathered in Havana’s Central Park also voiced support for Raul Castro.
“He’s a great leader, too,” Francisco Urbay, 66, said of the defense minister. “What’s happened is that he’s always had a giant by his side. Anywhere else in the world, he wouldn’t be No. 2.”
Fidel Castro, who took control of Cuba in 1959, has resisted repeated U.S. attempts to oust him as well as demands for multiparty elections and an open economy.
Cause of illness unknown
Doctors in the United States said Castro’s condition could be life-threatening but since the details of his symptoms were not released it was hard to say what caused the bleeding: severe ulcers, a colon condition called diverticulosis or even cancer as an outside possibility.
Castro seemed optimistic that with time he’ll resume his public role, asking in his letter that celebrations scheduled for his 80th birthday be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Castro has been in power since his armed revolution drove out dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959. He has since imposed a firm rule that has ensured Cuba’s place among the world’s five remaining communist countries — China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.
While Cubans in Miami have longed for Castro’s death for years, talk of his mortality was taboo on the island until June 23, 2001, when he fainted during a speech in the sun. Although Castro quickly recovered, many Cubans understood for the first time that their leader would eventually die.