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Cuban officials boast ‘peaceful succession’

While senior Cuban officials boasted on Monday that the island nation has set in motion a peaceful political succession, President Bush said that Cubans on the communist-ruled island should decide the future of their country once Castro passes.
Girls in Havana hold a picture of Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a gathering on Sunday.
Girls in Havana hold a picture of Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a gathering on Sunday.Javier Galeano / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Senior Cuban officials boasted on Monday that the island nation has set in motion a peaceful political succession, dashing U.S. government expectations of chaos following Fidel Castro's hand-over of power to his brother Raúl Castro.

"Fidel is not leading Cuba at this moment and this has not allowed disorder to take possession of Cuba. And this has set in motion a peaceful succession in Cuba," said Roberto Fernandez Retamar, a member of the Council of State, Cuba's top governing body at a news conference in Havana on Monday morning.

While senior officials in the past few days have assured Cubans that Fidel Castro is on the road to recovery after emergency surgery on July 27, state media did little to enlighten them further on Monday.

Granma, the ruling Communist Party newspaper, gave no update on Castro’s health but published a poem comparing him to a sturdy Cuban hardwood tree called the caguairan — known as the ax-breaker because it is so hard.

Meantime, President Bush said that Cubans on the communist-ruled island should decide the future of Cuba once President Fidel Castro passes from the scene and not Cuban exiles in the United States.

Cubans’ decision
Bush, at a news conference at his Texas ranch, said he knew little about Castro’s condition because Cuba “is not a very transparent society.”

“The only thing I know is what is speculated and that is that on the one hand he’s very ill, on the other hand he’s coming out of the hospital. I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Bush told reporters.

Castro is believed to be recovering from stomach surgery, but his location and exact condition remain a mystery almost a week after his unprecedented handover of power to his younger brother.

With Cubans on the island and in the United States pondering the future without Castro, Bush said Cubans should be able to choose their own form of government.

“As Cuba has the possibility of transforming itself from a tyrannical situation to a different type of society, the Cuban people ought to decide. The people on the island of Cuba ought to decide,” Bush said.

He added: “And once the people of Cuba decide to form a government, then Cuban-Americans can take an interest in that country and redress the issues of property confiscation.”

Many Cuban exiles claim property on the island that they lost when Castro swept to power in 1959.

The departure of Castro from power has long been a U.S. policy goal, but the Bush administration has been cautious since word of the 79-year-old leader’s illness surfaced a week ago. Washington, which keeps a tight embargo on Cuba, has urged Cubans on the island and exiles living in south Florida not to begin a mass migration spurred by uncertainty over Castro’s health.

‘Recovering favorably’
Carlos Lage, vice president of the Cuban Council of State, dismissed rumors that the 79-year old leader suffered from a malignant stomach tumor, as reported in the Saturday edition of the Brazilian daily, Folha de San Paulo. “After his surgery Fidel is recovering favorably. He does not have cancer,” Lage told reporters during a visit to Bolivia.

Lage also claimed that Castro, in power since 1959, would be well enough to be back at the helm “in several weeks.” In the interim Fidel has named his brother Raúl, 75, as his temporary replacement.

In Havana, government sources told NBC News that Castro was well enough to be eating, moving around and talking excessively on the telephone.

Another clue on Castro’s progress came from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. "This morning I learned that he's very well, that he is already getting out of bed, he's talking more than he should — because he talks a lot, you know. He has sent us greetings," reported Chavez Sunday on his weekly radio and TV address.

There are other indications that Castro may be getting better. Not only did key members of Castro’s inner circle travel out of the country this weekend but two of his sons were spotted in public — one at a public swimming pool and the other attending a nighttime concert.

In addition the Cuban Armed Forces seems to have dropped their alert level a notch or so. Earlier in the week elite reservists had been mobilized to undisclosed locations. Many returned home over the weekend. Meanwhile, party activists and civilian militias remain watchful for any internal disturbances.

Lack of information
Despite the reassurances, the Cuban public remains on edge and somewhat frustrated by the lack of information.

The state-run media has taken to running well-wishes and messages for a speedy recovery instead of providing updates on his health condition. The Cuban people have not heard from his doctors or family nor do they know what exactly ails him or even where he is hospitalized.

In fact, last Tuesday, a statement that supposedly came from Castro and read over national TV warned that medical postings would be slow in coming. Castro said he considered his health to be a “state secret” and underscored that he had no intention of helping his enemies take advantage of his weakness.

This drew a mixed reaction here.

Some think like Andrea Lopez. The kindergarten teacher says she has “no reason not to believe that El Comandante is getting better.”

Others like Nathan Morales, a street musician in Old Havana, think the worst. “How do we know he’s not already dead?” It's a disconcerting thought for a country where 70 percent of the people have known no other president or other system.

Where is Raúl?
But almost everyone is wondering when Raúl Castro will surface publicly. He has not been seen since handed temporary power on the night of July 31.

Government sources caution against reading anything into Raúl’s disappearance, arguing that he is busy running the country.

Some observers believe there may be a political meaning in his absence: by downplaying the power handover, the government sends the message that the country is stable and strong and no one needs to be reassured by Raúl appearing in public.

In the event that Fidel is permanently incapacitated, Raúl could be taking his time to allow people to adjust to the idea of a new President Castro.

Or, if Fidel is steadily recovering, then the elder Castro never really relinquished the limelight and its best that the younger brother stays in the shadows.

Government rallies
The government continues to organize daily pro-Fidel pep rallies across the island, some say to keep up people’s spirits while not divulging any substantial information about the state of the president’s health.

Raisa Toledo, a physician attending a Sunday morning gathering of several hundred women, pledged her allegiance to both Castro and his cause. “I love Fidel, Raul and my revolution. He should rest and know we will do anything for him.”

Even some of Castro’s detractors wished him well. Lazaro Jesús Acosta attended Mass and prayed not just for Castro’s health but that he would have a change of heart when he got better. "He's sick and maybe if a lot of people pray for him he'll get better. And when he gets better, he can think more about bettering the situation in Cuba."