Fidel Castro Will Always Lead Cuba, Locals Say

Castro's image is displayed at a Havana school and many other places in the city, though for months he's been seen only in videos, looking frail.
Castro's image is displayed at a Havana school and many other places in the city, though for months he's been seen only in videos, looking frail. (By Ariana Cubillos -- Associated Press)
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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 22, 2008

HAVANA, Feb. 21 -- Fidel Castro last delivered one of his signature marathon speeches more than 19 months ago. His words on that scorching summer day in July 2006 were the last he uttered in public before slipping into what has become one of modern history's most secretive convalescences.

But for José Pablo García, it is as if "El Comandante," as so many here call Castro, never left.

"He's always going to be our president," García, 65, a mechanic, said Thursday while waiting for his wife on a central Havana park bench. "It can't be any other way."

García expressed a common sentiment in this gracefully decaying capital city. It doesn't matter to him that Castro resigned the presidency in a pre-dawn Web posting two days ago. He couldn't care less that a new president -- most likely Castro's younger brother, Raúl, who was named interim president 19 months ago -- will be selected Sunday when the National Assembly meets. García, who remembers being full of hope when Castro led a rebel army to victory in 1959, can't see Cuba truly being led by anyone else as long as Fidel lives.

"There's no one to compare with him -- he is the man of the century," Leticia Vázquez, 50, a retired Interior Ministry worker, said as her teenage daughter nodded her head next to her outside the Havana International Book Fair. "For me, he's a god."

Across town, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Teresa, 40, a fruit vendor in Old Havana, was still talking about the future of Castro's presidency. "Even though the president decided to resign the other day, he's still going to continue being the president."

The streets around Teresa were as tranquil as on any other sultry winter day in Havana. Children chased each other through the shaded downtown parks, dozens of young people in tank tops waited patiently for seats at the Coppelia ice cream shop, and elderly women tilted umbrellas against the afternoon sun at crowded bus stops.

For years, analysts and exiles had predicted that there would be unrest if Castro ever ceded power, but none of that has materialized. For many Cubans, convinced that Castro will remain all-powerful, his decision has been greeted with a collective "Ho-hum."

Cubans are usually reluctant to criticize Castro for fear of repercussions in a country where political dissidents have been jailed for years. Several Cubans interviewed Thursday said, on condition of anonymity, that they were glad to see Castro give up his formal leadership post.

But Castro's biggest critics tend to be the most adamant that he will not relinquish control.

"We can't keep living this way, but nothing's going to change as long as Fidel breathes," a 20-something man said. "It's absurd. Everything is controlled. I can't do the work I want to do. They block Internet. The police are always snooping."

Castro has seemed to help along the notion that he is not entirely departing the scene. Even in his resignation letter, he wrote: "I am not saying farewell to you. I want only to be a soldier in the battle of ideas."


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