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Heightened sense of anxiety in Havana

A Cuban family passes a stand where books are sold on the life of Fidel Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos in Old Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday.   Jorge Rey / AP
/ Source: NBC News

HAVANA — Mary Murray has been based in Havana for NBC News since the Cuban raft crisis in 1994. She reports on the mood in the streets of Havana since Fidel Castro handed power temporarily to his brother, Raul on Monday evening.

What is the latest on Castro’s condition?  
NBC News sources confirmed on Wednesday that Castro seems to be out of the woods and on the road to recovery.

It seems that Castro downplayed his condition in his note on Monday, but, apparently it was quite serious. He had emergency intestinal surgery – which means that he had some kind of internal bleeding that they couldn’t stop. He was clearly very ill.

One member Castro’s inner circle who I spoke to on Wednesday sounded elated compared to how they had sounded on Monday night shortly after the news came out that Castro had undergone surgery. Their whole persona was different. To me that indicated that Castro’s condition had been quite serious, and that he really is recovering.

Nevertheless, starting on Monday night when the Cuban government announced Castro's illness, the military began mobilizing a portion of the army reserves - those veterans with elite special forces training. Some have been mobilized outside of their homes and are now in their units undergoing training. Others attended meetings where they were told they needed to be on-call at a moment's notice.

In addition, the Cuban Communist Party also activated the Defense Councils from the community level to the national level. These councils are comprised of leaders from the Cuban Communist Party, the Youth Organization, the neighborhood block associations, the parliament and the military whose role is to maintain the status quo and defend the country. These councils are activated during national emergencies, natural disasters, external threats, military invasion and domestic unrest.

The Party has also put on alert the Rapid Response Brigades - a network of para-military civilian groups - in their workplaces. They have been told that they could be mobilized at any minute. In the past these groups have been used to break up anti-government demonstrations.

Since Monday, work centers have been holding pro-government rallies to express their support for Castro and warn against any opposition. During one demonstration NBC News covered on Tuesday, a speaker threatened any kind of dissent saying, “The worms here better not raise their heads against Raul or we will cut them off.”

Publicly, the government says it is concerned that the U.S. would try to take advantage of Castro’s illness and stage military actions against the country - a rationale often used here to squelch internal dissent.

What is the mood on the street in Havana?
The mood on the surface is just life as normal. People are going about their daily business. They are going to work. It’s summertime, so a lot of people are on vacation and they are at the beaches, they are at the open-air restaurants, etc. They are on bus lines, taxi lines, riding their bicycles, at the farmer’s market, at the flea markets. So, it looks like life is normal on the surface.

But once you scratch the surface and start talking to people, you realize that there is a very high level of anxiety here. People are very concerned about Castro’s health and they are more concerned about what does it mean for Cuba if he dies - especially if he dies during the Bush administration which represents a very hostile moment in U.S.-Cuba relations.

People here want change. But, they only think that change is going to come if they are in an environment that is conducive to it, and not if they are in a conflictive environment.

Any kind of change, including Castro’s death, scares people. People are scared, and I think some people are in a state of shock – still. Monday night’s surprise announcement really threw people for a loop.

Many people at first thought that Castro was actually dead. They thought that this was the government’s way of slowly leaking that news. So, Monday they would announce he was sick, Tuesday they would announce that his condition was grave, and Wednesday they would announce that he was dead.

Now, after Tuesday’s announcement on Cuban TV where in his statement Castro spoke about his own recovery and said that he was wasn’t going to give daily announcement, but instead would be recovering. I think that the majority of people here are now taking that government health update at face value.

But they remain highly concerned about his well being. They know that he is about to turn 80 and that he is at a vulnerable moment in his life.

For the majority of people on this island - 70 percent of people on this island are under 47 years old – Fidel Castro is the only leader they have ever known. They have known no other government and no other system.

So people are afraid. They are uneasy, they are concerned and there is a very high level of anxiety here.

What kind of news are Cubans getting from the state media in addition to these statements from Fidel that have been released?
No details whatsoever. We don’t know where he is hospitalized. We don’t know exactly what illness he has – the original statement was fairly vague. 

In Tuesday night’s statement he basically said that he was not going to provide that information because his state of health is a national security issue given the hostility with the United States. That’s the context in which he said that he’s not going to provide any more information to the public here. But that doesn’t stop people from being very concerned and wanting more information.

In fact, that’s the thing that happens here. Because of the lack of information from the government-controlled media, it leads to all sorts of wild speculation.

If you had an announcement in the U.S. that the president underwent surgery, no one would think that he might be dead and that the information was being hidden from us. But that was people’s first thought here.

I spoke to someone here that I haven’t talked to in two weeks and I asked what her what her reaction was to Castro’s illness. She immediately said, “Oh, I don’t think he’s dead.” But, I wasn’t asking her whether I thought he was dead or alive, but that was her first reaction. You can kind of use that to gauge how people think here.   

You get really wild stories here. People are concerned about his health, frustrated by the lack of information, and that leads to people being scared because they don’t feel like they are getting the information that they need.

A look at the life of the revolutionary leader.

When it comes to Castro and you look at the state media and how they reported on him in the late 1950s and early 1960s and how they report details on his life now and there is a world of difference. I found some old magazines from 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 and it was pure paparazzi.

The coverage of Castro was gossip – what clothes the women in his life were wearing, who he was dating, who he was going out with – it was really quite funny.

But in the press now, they never mention his wife, his children, or his grandchildren. There are no personal details about his life or any of the top leaders. And that’s the way they have run things here for 47 years.

You mention Castro saying that he can’t give any other details about his health because of the threat posed by the U.S. government and that his health must remain "a state secret." Is that anti-U.S. rhetoric, even from his hospital bed, at all surprising?
That is Fidel Castro. You go back to the statement on Monday, and count how many times he used the word “provisional.” Every handover he made, he specified what responsibilities from his office would go to which particular person. And he used the word “provisional” every single time he made a handover.

Fidel Castro is the kind of guy who is going to die with his boots on. There is no retirement for him.

In the past he has said that he will only consider retirement if he is incapacitated. Other than that, he is going to struggle along and is his mind he represents the opposite pole of the United States.

He believes that he represents values diametrically opposed to the U.S. In his mind, on one hand you have the U.S. and capitalism and on the other hand you have Castro and what he represents – socialism. I think that’s where he gets his energy – from that negative relationship.

You’ve been based in Cuba for NBC News since 1994, have you ever seen anything like this before?
Cuba is in a bit of a holding pattern. Some people have an attitude like they are waiting for things to change. That doesn’t mean that they don’t wish Castro a speedy recovery, but I think people want change. They know that change is inevitable and they know that their president is about to turn 80, and I think that they would welcome change.

Cubans take things in stride. On Monday evening people were in shock, some people were crying, some people were just feeling panicky. But, as the days have gone on, people have assimilated the news. And the sky didn’t fall in. So, things are pretty normal here.

The government here is trying to reassure people that he was ill, but that he is recovering, and things are running as normal. People are being told to be on their guard in the event that someone may want to take advantage of the situation, but people here are always told that their national security could be threatened at any minute. It hasn’t been in many years, but that’s something people here live with.