Cuba Calm as Castro Recovers

A week into Communist Cuba's long-awaited leadership crisis, it appears there no crisis actually happening.

Official reports, cabinet member statements, comments from estranged family in the United States and Cuban government sources indicate Fidel Castro, 79, has begun recovering from emergency stomach surgery (though he is not out of danger) and his designated successor, brother Raul Castro, 75, is firmly in charge as a carefully scripted succession plan is carried out.

The political and military leadership has closed ranks around Raul, though he remains out of sight. The official -- and only -- media is spewing out endless sympathy and praise for the Castro brothers by sports figures, cultural figures and man-on-the-street interviews, but little concrete information.

Elite military reserves were already being called up Monday evening when the government broke the news that Fidel Castro was seriously ill and no longer governing for the first time in 47 years, albeit perhaps only temporarily. Soon after, internal security forces were placed on alert, as were Communist party cells and the block-level Committees in Defense of the Revolution.

The alert appeared precautionary, as there was no indication of a military threat from the United States or internal chaos that might panic Cuban-Americans into trying to help relatives or other people on the Caribbean island to flee. Both governments appeared determined to avoid an immigration crisis or direct confrontation.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did send a message to the Cuban people, carried on the U.S.-funded Cuban broadcasters Radio and TV Marti, stating the United States is committed to supporting a future of freedom for Cuba, but a check of major cities and Havana municipalities found no one had heard or seen her for various reasons, including Cuban government jamming.

A huge electronic sign mounted on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana at times also sent out such messages, but a flag field erected on the parking lot when the sign first lit up in January obscures it from view unless one walks directly by the building.

Fidel Castro's famous three-car Mercedes motorcade was seen more than once, presumably with brother Raul Castro inside.

"The police stopped us in our cars well before it came by, and when it did people cheered and there were even some 'viva Rauls,' " said Hal Klepak, a Canadian military historian and author of a recent book on Cuba's armed forces.

The Roman Catholic Church, potentially the only serious ideological, if not political opposition in a country where no other national, well-organized and financed independent institutions exist, called on people to pray for Castro in a statement to churchgoers on Sunday.

Fidel Castro's health problems present "an especially significant moment" for Cuba, the message stated, and then it called for "peace and fraternal cohabitation among all Cubans, which cannot be disturbed by any external or internal situation."

The church statement clearly reflected the country's mood.

"Tuesday we had a community meeting and I couldn't believe it. Some people were wailing and I even began to cry," said Ana, a state employee in a central Cuba sugar town.

That evening a communiqué from Fidel Castro assured people he was stable, though the situation would remain delicate for a while longer, and there would be little information to keep his enemies guessing.

Accredited foreign journalists went about their work relatively unhampered, but no new journalist visas were issued, many were turned away at the airport trying to enter as tourists, and those who managed to slip in were politely, but firmly, informed to get out.

"I was riding the bus on Thursday when this man started denouncing Fidel for all our problems," a doctor said.

"Everyone jumped on him and started hitting him, then the bus stopped and they threw him off," she said.

There were no reports of dissidents being arrested, perhaps because they limited their activity to speaking with the foreign media.

With rumors now circulating that Fidel Castro has stood up, or has taken liquids or is even now resting at home, speculation has turned here and abroad to what health problem he has and whether this has been a dry run or a more permanent succession is underway.

Few people believe Fidel Castro can return to his full duties, as he did after fainting in 2001 or breaking an arm and knee in a fall two years ago, but perhaps he will play a reduced role for a while longer, something that many experts believe would allow his country and the world to adjust to life without him.