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In Cuba, Question Keeps Popping Up: Where's Raúl Castro?

By César González-Calero and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 3, 2006

HAVANA, Aug. 2 -- In this island capital's long bus-stop lines and open markets, its offices and restaurants, the question keeps popping up: Where's Raúl?

Raúl Castro has yet to appear in public since being named temporary president of Cuba late Monday. His absence is adding a layer of intrigue to the speculation-heavy ambience that has settled over this city. It was two days ago that the Cuban government announced that Fidel Castro -- who is recovering from intestinal surgery -- would relinquish his 47-year hold on power to his younger brother.

"I think Raúl should have appeared by now, more than anything to calm the public and to show the world that everything is under control," said Joel, a taxi driver, who did not want to divulge his last name for fear of government reprisals.

Cuba's government has not made an official proclamation about Fidel Castro's health since late Tuesday evening, even as Cuban exiles and some U.S. officials have questioned whether the Cuban leader, whose 80th birthday is this month, has already died. The closest to an official statement was delivered in an unlikely forum on Wednesday when Ricardo Alarcón, the Cuban National Assembly president, told NPR's "All Thing Considered" that Fidel Castro would not return to power for "some weeks."

"Mentally speaking he's, for a person that has just gone through surgery, he was very, very alive in spirit, and alert, even to take care of making certain decisions that he, himself, wrote down in a paper that was read last Monday evening," Alarcón said.

When asked where Raúl Castro was and when he would appear in public, Alarcon said: "He's in Havana. Where is Mr. Cheney now?"

Little news about international reaction to Fidel Castro's illness is reaching Havana because most Cubans are denied access to the Internet or satellite television. Instead, they must rely on state-run media.

"We have no clear information -- just rumors," Gerardo Sanchez, a human rights activist, said in a phone interview from his Havana home.

Sanchez said he is concerned that political prisoners may be mistreated if they react positively to news that Fidel Castro has temporarily ceded power. Amnesty International says there are 72 political prisoners in Cuban prisons, 60 of whom were arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissidents.

Sanchez said he has noticed a larger law enforcement presence on Havana's streets since the Monday announcement. Still, he said, the capital's streets were calm, despite underlying worries about instability and questions about Raúl Castro's whereabouts.

Roger Noriega, who oversaw the U.S. government's Cuba policy as assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs from 2003 to 2005, said in an interview that Raúl Castro is known to "disappear for long periods of time.

"He's probably being careful not to be dramatic in asserting himself as a new leader," Noriega said.

Raúl Castro, 75, is the longtime head of Cuba's military and for years has been considered his brother's heir apparent. But his low public profile -- before and after the announcement of his brother's surgery -- has left some in Havana wondering whether he will be a figurehead.

"Raúl is not coming out in public because he is still being controlled by Fidel," said Hector, a Havana street vendor, who would not disclose his last name. "The man is in charge even from his bed and his brother knows that. Even though they say Raúl is governing, as long as Fidel lives, he will be in charge. Forget about it. That's the way it is."

On the streets near Hector's stand, Cubans appeared to be recapturing the rhythms of Havana life. Live lobsters were on sale in the Vedado neighborhood, commuters complained about the endless waits for taxis and buses, and the scent of cigar smoke was in the air.

Others things hadn't changed either, most notably the unflinching affection for Fidel Castro expressed by many in this capital, where his personal popularity often supersedes complaints about his policies.

"Our Comandante will recover very soon," said Roberto Garcia during a stroll through Vedado. "They've said he's getting better and resting and soon will return to lead our country."

As he walked away, Garcia jiggled something in his right hand: a small Cuban flag.

Roig-Franzia reported from Mexico City.

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