HAVANA – On the day after Cuban President Fidel Castro stunned his island nation by announcing that he had undergone major surgery and ceded power to his brother, Cubans studiously went about their business Tuesday but privately pondered a once-unthinkable future.

Across Havana, exhorted by the sickbed words of Fidel himself, images of normalcy reigned. Like any other day, even on this most unusual of days, dozens of people lined up in the broiling summer sun to get a scoop of ice cream at Coppelia’s, the capital’s most famous outdoor cafe.

Castro is in stable condition and recovering from surgery to stop intestinal bleeding, Cuban officials said Tuesday, but they issued no new photos of the 79-year-old dictator and provided little new information about his illness.

A cryptic statement attributed to Castro and read on an evening news program in Havana suggested that physicians were uncertain about his prognosis.

“I cannot invent good news, because that wouldn’t be ethical,” the statement said. “And if the news were bad, the only one to benefit is the enemy.”

“I wish to say that the situation is stable, but a real evolution of the state of one’s health requires the passing of time,” the statement said. “The most I could say is that the situation will remain stable for many days before a verdict can be delivered.”

For the first time in nearly a half-century, Cubans confronted the distinct possibility of life without one of Latin America’s icons, a man who has defied 10 U.S. presidents and reshaped this Caribbean island through his will and determination even as he crushed any serious opposition to his rule.

“He’s like a king and a king is irreplaceable,” a 41-year-old security guard told a friend as the sun rose gently over this seaside city.

For most of the day, there was little news from the government, and Castro’s brother and designated successor, Raul, did not appear in public on his first day running the government. Parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon told Prensa Latina, the government’s official news agency, that Fidel’s “final moment is still very far away.”

Finally, early in the evening, Castro spoke to the nation, in a manner, through a written statement read on a national television. The Cuban leader said in his statement that he was in stable condition, but that he could not give details because his medical status is “a state secret” coveted by Cuba’s mortal enemy, the United States.

“I can’t fall into the vicious circle of health updates that are constantly changing throughout the day,” Castro told his countrymen in a message read on the Cuban nightly public affairs show “Mesa Redonda,” or “Round Table,” by government journalist Randy Alonso. “I can say it’s a stable condition, but a true evaluation of a state of health needs the passage of time.”

In public, Cubans spoke about anything Tuesday – a recent student gathering, an overcrowded bus that left passengers behind, the ripeness of a mango – but appeared to choose their words carefully when speaking about Castro.

“Everything is normal,” said Leiner Arias, 30, sunglasses perched on his head as stood in an outdoor market in the upscale Havana neighborhood of Vedado. “Yes, we are worried about the health of the president, but we are not scared. Look around, it’s a normal day.”

The official line is that Cuba’s Communist Party will remain firmly in control even if Castro doesn’t survive his current illness, which is expected to leave him incapacitated for weeks. For some time the government has been preparing Cubans, through glowing media accounts and increasing public appearances by the normally reticent Raul, for the day when Fidel’s younger brother would be in command.

Now that day was here. Raul took over his brother’s triple roles as commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the Communist Party and president of the republic and the council of state. Fidel also delegated other economic, health and education functions to other top party officials assisting Raul.

As a show of support, the government organized rallies in several places throughout Havana, including outside Havana’s colonial-era Customs offices on the shores of Havana Bay.

But they were short and low-key by Cuban government standards. The rally outside Customs lasted barely 30 minutes, a crowd of several hundred state workers listening quietly to speeches urging support for Castro and the government.

“Viva La Revolucion! Viva Fidel!” the speaker shouted into a microphone as the rally ended.

At the rally, officials announced that militant pro-government groups were being activated to help maintain the peace. Soldiers on leave were called back to service and some reservists are being called up, according to several Havana residents.

No anti-government protests were reported Tuesday and even leaders of Cuba’s tiny opposition urged caution and restraint.

“The dissident community in Cuba is pacifist,” said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent journalist and economist. “None of them are calling for protests.”

But that did not mean Cubans weren’t shocked by Monday’s announcement or concerned that their island nation could be entering a dangerous period.

On Monday night, the 41-year-old security guard was listening to a volleyball game on a small plastic radio when it was interrupted by a news bulletin. He thought Castro was going to speak about a recent outbreak of dengue fever.

Instead, the man listened to the brief letter.

Internal bleeding. Complicated surgery. Several weeks of rest – those were the phrases that stuck in his mind.

A longtime government supporter, the security guard said the words “paralyzed me.” The security guard said Castro looked fit when he appeared in public last week.

Yet a day later, the guard said he was certain Castro’s health condition is serious. Why else would the Cuban leader postpone the celebrations of his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 until early December?

And for the first time, the Havana resident is concerned about Cuba’s future, saying that Raul Castro doesn’t have the political clout and leadership abilities to govern this nation.

“He doesn’t have one-third of the charisma and personality of Fidel,” said the man, who requested anonymity. “Fidel must recover quickly. There is only one king.”


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