For the first time in almost half a century, Cuban leader Fidel Castro did not hold the island’s reins on his birthday Sunday.
Instead, Sunday marked 13 days since the release of an official statement announcing a severe intestinal crisis had forced Castro to temporarily delegate power to his younger brother, Raúl.
This news, which traveled the globe, produced a spectrum of reactions among Cubans in exile worldwide. Cuban-Americans in the U.S. state of Florida, for instance, flooded the streets of Little Havana in joy and hopes of a fallen empire.
Though Costa Rica hosts no such neighborhood, the Cuban Consulate in San José estimates there are anywhere from 6,000-7,000 Cubans in the country. This week, some echoed the hopes of their Florida counterparts.
The Tico Times interviewed several Cuban residents and found reactions ranging from skepticism that Castro is still alive to indifference about his health problems.
On the island, according to one recent visitor, nothing appears to have changed and Cubans continue their daily lives as tourists keep enjoying their holidays.
The Cuban Club
Monday night, Cuban transplant Armando Hernández, 43, hosted a meeting at the Club Campestre José Martí, a gathering place for Costa Rica’s Cuban community in Guachipelín, in the western suburb of Escazú.
The meeting, held at an empty pool hall attached to the club, known popularly as the “Cuban Club,” brought together eight Cuban expatriates ages 8-62 to discuss the significance of Castro’s illness.
Hernández said Castro’s health has noticeably deteriorated in recent years, and he highlighted the incident when he fainted during a public act outside of Havana in 2001.
The fact that Raúl Castro has taken over his brother’s duties led Hernández to speculate Castro is already dead and the Cuban government has scrambled to cover up the loss.
“In general, two possibilities exist: either Castro is in a coma…or he is definitely dead,” he told The Tico Times.
“All his life he has never permitted anyone to exceed his power; his power has always been absolute,” he said, explaining how extraordinary it is that he would allow his brother to steer the country.
Even though Cuban media recently published photos and aired videos of Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who visited Cuba to celebrate the leader’s birthday, Hernández said he considers these questionable. He won’t believe any news about the head of state’s health until Castro delivers it himself in a public appearance, he added.
Cuban General Consul Jorge Rodríguez told The Tico Times he has no more news about Castro’s health than what has been released by the Cuban media, such as the birthday images.
The consul refused to comment further because he said it is unnecessary to rehash information already released by the media.
Huber Matos, 62, a farmer and tourism operator who manages a finca in the Caribbean-slope Pacuare region, said there’s a myth that if Castro’s Cuba falls, many of the country’s 2 million exiles will return to the island to recover properties they lost 47 years ago when Castro took power.
However, Matos, who arrived in Costa Rica at age 15 and said he is not interested in going back to the island, said very few people who lost their property and businesses are still alive. Not many of those who are would want to return.
What Cubans want is “a free Cuba,” he added.
Others, such as Hernández, said they would return.
By nature, Cubans are not a migrant people; they have been forced to migrate because of their circumstances, he said. In the event of a transition to a democratic Cuba, Hernández said he would certainly return because he misses Cubans’ neighborly ways.
“I was born and raised in Old Havana. I like my neighbor to wake up, greet me, and come over to drink coffee,” he said, explaining that he has lived four years in a beautiful Guachipelín home but does not yet know his neighbors.
Regardless of Castro’s health, change is already in the air on the island, Matos said. “Whether he’s half dead, half alive, that is their problem (the Cuban government’s).
What matters is that the people want change,” he said at the recent meeting over a plate of Cuban croquetas, fried minced-meat cakes.
Matos said Cubans, who may have initially believed in the revolution, now live miserably, lacking basic necessities such as soap, milk and medicine.
On the Island
Though Castro’s health may have the world speculating about the island’s future, life in Cuba appears unchanged except for stricter safety measures and the cancellation of some scheduled activities to celebrate Castro’s birthday.
The weeklong carnival celebrated after Castro’s birthday each year was rescheduled for coming weeks, according to a tourist who visited Cuba recently and asked to remain unnamed because she fears Cuban authorities might prevent her from returning to the country.
She said Cubans told her an emergency police task force is on hand in the capital to maintain order in case Castro dies.
Though Cubans appear to be going about their lives as usual, a deeper look reveals they are concerned about the future, the tourist said.
“On the surface, people everywhere repeated that life is going on normally. Inside their homes, however, I think they are scared” about what the future holds, she said.
“I can’t speak for the entire nation, but most people I talked to would rather have Fidel than the U.S. government,” she added.