Cubans Ask What's Next as Castro Makes a Comeback

The three middle-aged Cuban women don't quite believe it, though all the signs leave little doubt. Fidel Castro, the iconic figure who has ruled their country since they were born, has miraculously survived a grave illness and will once again appear in public and play a role in their lives.

But what role will Fidel play, the three women wondered the other evening as they chatted over coffee and pastries at the Pan de Paris French bakery in Havana. Despite Castro's expected return, they doubt that either he or their country will ever be exactly the same.

For weeks now Cuban officials, relatives and friends have signaled that Castro has gotten over the worst of whatever ailed him after he underwent abdominal surgery in late July. And Thursday, state media carried a long and scathing editorial by Castro attacking the Bush administration's plans to turn corn into fuel instead of bread -- his first such comments in more than eight months.

Castro's older brother Ramon said this week that Fidel had recovered and is "free" from the sick bed and clinic that was his home for months.

Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez said earlier this month that he had taken a long walk outdoors with Castro and pronounced him "the same old Fidel."

Even the United States has stopped saying Castro has cancer and only a short time to live, affirming that the man who has defied 10 presidents still dominates decision making on the communist-run Caribbean island.

"Fidel Castro remains a … controlling political presence," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said last week.

Anaida, Pia and Maria said they were astounded that their seemingly invincible leader had proved to be, well invincible. The women, two from central Cuba and one from Havana, joked about how Fidel's enemies will be disappointed and how their leader has to be some sort of witch doctor.

The women said they wished Castro no harm; on the contrary, they viewed him almost as family and were glad the "old man," now going on 81, is alive. Anaida and Maria, both nurses, were curious to know what Castro suffered from and how he was after eight months of convalescing in a secret location from an ailment also kept secret.

There have been many reports in foreign media that Castro has diverticulitis, a serious inflammation of the large intestine that often requires surgery in older people. But from Cuban officials and media, there has not been a word.

"It's almost certain we will see him soon, and all of us are very anxious that he appear in public," said Anaida, a midlevel Communist Party leader who, like the other two women interviewed, asked that her last name not be used. "He is the leader the people have always followed, and though everything has continued without him, it's not the same."

Of course, some Cubans would prefer Castro retire or even die, and many are simply too busy with their daily lives to think much about him. But Pia and Maria nodded their heads in enthusiastic agreement with Anaida, reflecting the feelings of many here.

At the cocktail parties along Havana's embassy row the talk is no longer about what ails Castro and if he will live or die, but what role he and his younger brother and stand-in, Raul Castro, 75, will now play and if expectations that Raul might loosen up the Soviet-style command economy should be put on hold.

Cuba expert Frank Mora at the National War College in Washington doubts Castro will ever micromanage Cuba again.

"First, his health will not let him keep up the same pace of work and focus. Second, the leadership is making certain adjustments in … personnel and certain policies. Sure, Fidel can and has always reversed previous decisions he did not like, but this is quite different," Mora said.

"He will have influence over key strategic issues, but direction over the government and Communist Party is now fully in the hands of the Raulistas," he said.

It's a view shared by many experts and Cubans.

"I don't think he will run the country again," Anaida said. "First, because he has to take care of himself, and second, because we need him as a guide, leading us, and if he goes back to his work he won't last long." Pia and Maria, biting into chocolate éclairs, once more nodded their heads.

"Raul's leadership will become stronger as Fidel gradually fades," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who defected in the early 1990s and now teaches in Florida.

"Raul will play a decisive role in shaping what is, and will be, the crucial question. What comes after the Castros, and that will include significant economic changes to meet people's growing expectations," he said.

Thursday's editorial, though, left little doubt that whatever his future role, Castro has not lost his sense for the dramatic nor penchant for berating the United States for being the cause of the poor's plight.

Castro charged that the U.S. plan to turn food into ethanol would lead to massive famine and the death of no less than 3 billion people.

"This is not an exaggerated figure, it's more likely cautious," Castro wrote.