Cuba, seeking to reassure its people after Fidel Castro temporarily stepped down from power for surgery, released a statement from the long-time leader saying his health was stable and the defence of the island guaranteed, even as it sent more police today into neighbourhoods that have seen civil disturbances in the past.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and designated successor, remained silent and out of sight today, issuing no statements of his own while 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.
Many Castro supporters expressed confidence today that the island’s Communist system would remain intact no matter what happens to the man who has led them for 47 years.
“Either way, the revolution has to keep going,” said retiree Santos Perez. “The revolution continues with or without Fidel. Fidel is a leader, but there are many leaders here, like his brother.”
The statement read on state television last night by Castro, who temporarily handed power to his brother on Monday night after surgery, expressed gratitude for good wishes from leaders and supporters around the world and called on Cubans to remain calm as they carried out their daily routines.
“The country is prepared for its defence,” he said, apparently to assure Cubans the island was safe from potential US attack.
“The important thing is that in the country everything is going perfectly well, and will continue to do so.”
Even so, there appeared to be an increase in police patrols in some working-class neighbourhoods and in coastal areas that have seen civil disturbances in the past, like during running power blackouts in the summer of last year.
The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the government’s neighbourhood-watch groups, stepped up volunteer night patrols and the pro-government Rapid Action Brigades, used in the past to handle civil disturbances, were placed on standby.
In Washington, politicians were already speculating about a post-Castro Cuba and in Miami, Cuban exiles celebrated in the streets, demonstrations Cuban parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon called “vomit-provoking acts” led by “mercenaries and terrorists”.
Many Cubans agreed today that the celebrations were in poor taste.
“That’s what you can expect from the type of trash that lives in the United States and cares nothing about this country,” Havana housewife Oralis Delgado said.
US Coast Guard Commander Jeff Carter said today that intelligence agencies have seen no indication of a mass migration of Cubans to the United States since Castro stepped down. The Coast Guard patrols the water between Cuba and Florida.
“We’re not seeing anything, nor are we seeing any going the other direction, from Florida,” he said.
The leaders of China, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia and Mexico were among many wishing Castro well.
The European Union also forwarded a get-well wish to Castro today.
“We wish that President Fidel Castro and Cuban democracy (have) a quick recovery,” EU spokesman Pietro Petrucci said in Brussels, Belgium.
Relations between Havana and the 25-nation bloc have been icy over the past few years, with the EU stepping up its criticism of Castro for alleged human rights violations.
The EU last year lifted sanctions, imposed in 2003 after Cuban authorities detained 75 dissidents, which had included shunning high-level talks with Cuban officials.
Castro, 79 and the world’s longest-serving head of government, said in his statement that his condition was serious but stable, adding: “As for my spirits, I feel perfectly fine.”
It was unknown when or where the surgery took place or where Castro was recovering.
Castro apologised for not giving more details, but said the threat posed to his government by the US means his health must be treated as “a state secret”.
No images of the leader were shown.
Alarcon dismissed suspicions among exiles in Miami that Castro was dead, telling the government’s Prensa Latina news service that the Cuban leader’s “final moment is still very far away”.
Still, there was some anxiety among Cubans.
“Everything is 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.”
In Cuba, dissidents kept a low profile while watching for signs of Castro’s condition. Some 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.
Cubans were stunned when Castro’s secretary read a letter on state television on Monday night announcing their leader was temporarily turning over power to his 75-year-old brother Raul, the island’s defence minister and his designated successor.
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”.
The calm delivery of the initial announcement appeared intended to signal that any transition of power would be orderly. Yet some feared resentment over class divisions could spark conflict if a political vacuum develops.
“It’s better for things to move slowly, instead of abrupt change,” Garcia said. “But people are a bit nervous. Anything could happen.”
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.
But a Cuban fisherman said he had a message for the US government: stay out.
“In my house, I don’t allow any outsider to order me around,” Lazaro Alfonso Gonzalez, 58, said at a pro-Castro rally in Havana. “Cuba is my home, and none of us will allow anyone to come here and tell us what to do.”
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 defence minister. “What’s happened is that he’s always had a giant by his side. Anywhere else in the world, he wouldn’t be number two.”