Some affection, little fuss in Havana

As Miriam Castillo settles into a seat aboard Flight 830 from Caracas to Havana with help from her son, she looks blankly out the window, her lips twitching upward into a smile.

Nearly blind, she is setting off on a one-month, all-expense-paid medical visit to Cuba, thanks to Fidel Castro. Like so many other beneficiaries of President Castro's social and medical programs, she will return to Venezuela seeing the world as if it were new, she says.

"Gracias to Fidel," she murmurs. "What would we do without him?"

Three days after it was announced that the 79-year-old icon himself had had "complicated" surgery, the world was asking the same question. But on the streets of Havana, Ms. Castillo's great love for Castro is balanced by a sense of ambivalence. Most here have never known a Cuba without Fidel Castro, and they cannot fathom it now.

Whether it springs from a lack of information in this cloistered country or the understanding that Castro has weathered countless crises in the past, there is a clear lack of urgency along Havana's boulevards.

"Well, it's possible we could be on the verge of a new era," shrugs Francisco, a pool attendant at one of the city's upscale tourist hotels, who would not give his full name. "But more likely this is just one more of those weeks filled with confusion that leads to nothing. We are all behind our president and pray for his health."

The mood contrasts strikingly with reaction around the world, where Cuban exiles in Miami celebrated in the streets, a dozen world leaders sent get-well flowers, and the news interrupted the media's nonstop Middle East coverage.

It remained unclear Thursday what was going on with the man who had ruled Cuba for five decades, seeing ten American presidents in and out of office with the same unwavering defiance. Nor was it clear what was next for the island so defined by him and his revolution.

Save a statement read on national television Tuesday, saying Castro's operation had gone well, and a later update from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, saying he had spoken to the leader and Castro's recovery was "advancing positively," scant information was available here. Neither Fidel nor his brother, Raúl, who has temporarily assumed power, has been seen publicly since last week.

No contingency plans have been revealed, except a change of date for Castro's 80th birthday celebrations, which were scheduled for Aug. 13. The nightly news Wednesday led with a special report on the Central American games in Colombia, followed by a round-table on the subject of sports development in Cuba.

There are no independent newspapers, radio, or television stations here. Internet access is found almost exclusively in a few upscale Havana hotels, which charge more for a minute of use than most Cubans make in a day.

"Something is clearly going on, but we all have to be patient until the time is right for us to know what that is," says Antonio Quiza, a shoemaker on Infanta Street.

Any expectations by outsiders that mass calls for democracy and military repression would erupt at word of such a transfer of power has gone completely unrealized so far. For Mr. Quiza, only time will tell what comes next.

"If Fidel recovers, as we are being told, and Raúl just takes care of day-to-day things until then, that means one thing," he says. "If Raúl is really taking over, then that could or could not mean something else. We shall just wait and see."

Almost no one strolling along the city's Malecon seaside at sunset wanted to discuss Raúl, a 75-year-old defense minister who toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista together with his brother and has served as his loyal, if somewhat more pragmatic, right-hand man ever since.

Those that did speak up, like Luis Valdez, a popsicle vendor, explained that having the first new leader of Cuba since 1959 would be "no big deal at all."

"Cuba remains Cuba," he says. "And, anyway, Fidel is getting better."

Mr. Valdez, like others here, recalls the incident in 2003 when Castro took a fall down a flight of stairs and off a podium, breaking his arm and shattering his knee. Two days later, he called a lengthy press conference to recount how he had refused to take painkillers when the doctors set his bones.

It would be nice, muses Valdez, if some "little things" changed in the country. He would like to freely leave the island and visit his four cousins, three uncles, and two daughters in the United States, something sharply limited under Castro. But he was not planning a reunion quite yet.

"If there is anyone in the world [that can recover], it's Fidel," says Jorge Luis César, playing soccer in an alley of the old city.

"Watch," he says, head-butting the ball into an open doorway and stealing a furtive glance at his ex-girlfriend, who is leaning on a nearby wall, decked out in orange spandex with a matching bandanna and sunglasses. "He will come back in a few weeks refreshed, and we will wake up and rub our eyes just like after sleep ... and the world will look just the same."

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