Confusion in Cuba Over Leadership and Future

It's been nine months since Cubans learned July 31 that their 80-year-old president, Fidel Castro, had undergone abdominal surgery and temporarily handed over power to his younger brother by five years, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

They still have no idea where Castro is convalescing, what exactly he suffers from and why it has taken him so long to recover. Even the CIA isn't sure.

But that may be about to change.

Now, with officials insisting Castro is on the mend and increasingly involved in governing, Cubans expect they might see him at Tuesday's International Workers Day march, one of the country's most important political events, or sometime during the day on television.

"We always hope to see him. I hope to see him at the May Day march. Everybody hopes so," a young woman in Havana said, not giving her name.

The secrecy is necessary, due to the Bush administration's hostility toward the communist-run Caribbean island, officials here insist.

"I think we are now facing the worst moment in our relations with the United States. I don't remember another administration as aggressive, as openly against Cuba as this one," Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban parliament and long-time member of Castro's kitchen Cabinet, told ABC's Bob Woodruff in Havana.

Since arriving in Cuba Friday on his first international assignment since recovering from a roadside bombing in Iraq in January 2006, Woodruff has been exploring Cuba's streets, sipping cups of rich Cuban coffee in crowded tenements and talking to officials and ordinary Cubans about Castro and Cuba's future.

His reporting team includes cameraman Doug Vogt and sound technician Magnus de Macedo, the same crew that was with him in Iraq the day he was critically injured by an improvised explosive device.

"Some people like Castro, and some people don't like him," 47-year-old Roberto Martinez said.

Martinez arrived in the United States with tens of thousands of other Cubans during the 1979 Mariel exodus but later got in trouble with the law and spent 10 years in prison before being deported to Cuba. He has two sons in the United States.

"I want to go back. Many people want to go and many people want to stay," he said.

'Nobody Knows'

Few people want to talk politics with foreign journalists here, but few appear to wish the man President Bush called a "cruel dictator" Saturday dead. And many wish him well.

"Of course, we as religious people cannot request the death of anybody," Yolaida, a practitioner of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, said when asked if she was trying to make Castro healthier.

As for the future, it seems for many Cubans to be as much of a mystery as Castro's whereabouts and exactly which brother is running their country.

"I don't know what will happen later," the young woman in Havana said, insisting she was not political.

"Nobody knows," Martinez said.

Woodruff said there were other common views among the many Cubans he spoke with.

"They want change. They want improvements in their lives, but they want it to be gradual, not radical or violent," he said.

Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard professor of international relations and a well-known Cuba expert and ABC consultant, said Cubans want a better life without shortages and other hardships, but at the same time appreciate the country's free education and health care.

"The first idea -- more prosperity -- would lead them to support the reform of the economy. And the second -- good schools and good clinics -- would lead to reluctance to too much change," he said during an interview last week.

Ordinary Cubans and international experts seem unsure whether Fidel Castro, Raul Castro or both are running their country, though they agree life has gone on more or less as usual over the last nine months.

Alarcon said Castro had never stopped leading the country.

"He is the leader of the country. You can have a very important responsibility in different manners," he told Woodruff.

But Brian Latell, who tracked the Castro brothers for decades when he worked for the CIA, said in an interview in the United States last week that Raul Castro was running the country.

"I doubt Fidel will ever return to the day to day leadership role that he exercised in the past," Latell said.

Latell, Dominguez, Alarcon and many other Cubans agreed on one thing. With Cuba at a crossroads, the United States has very little influence in the country.

"The Bush administration, the United States, has virtually no influence over the succession," Latell said.

"The United States is on another planet. You have nothing to do with the reality of this planet," Alarcon quipped.