HAVANA – Fidel Castro was a constant presence during Hurricane Ivan's approach to the island nation this week, appearing for hours on state television to assuage Cubans' fears, underscoring his larger-than-life role in this socialist society.
"Ivan couldn't go up against Fidel," read a headline in the Communist Party youth paper Juventud Rebelde (search) on Wednesday. A poem read over state radio Tuesday night said Castro's "thumb" pushed Ivan away from the island and into the Gulf of Mexico.
On Monday, hours before Ivan struck, Castro traveled to the western province of Pinar del Rio (search) to discuss disaster preparations with authorities. Residents shouted: "Fidel! Fidel!" when his caravan passed.
One woman in the tobacco-growing region said residents were happy to have their leader close by.
"Fidel protects us from all bad things," 78-year-old Elsa Ramos said Monday.
Castro appeared live on state television for several consecutive days, discussing weather patterns with the island's top meteorologist and asking Civil Defense officials about evacuation plans.
State-run media on Wednesday played up Castro's role in preparedness plans and applauded local organizations for evacuating nearly 1.9 million of the island's 11.3 million citizens.
No deaths or injuries were reported in Cuba after Ivan — one of the most powerful storms to strike the Caribbean in the past century — swept past Cuba's western tip Monday before heading toward the United States.
Ivan killed at least 68 people in Jamaica, Grenada, Venezuela, Tobago, Barbados, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
In the first official damage report, authorities told Juventud Rebelde that Ivan damaged more than 1,600 tobacco curing houses in Pinar del Rio's 80 percent of orange and grapefruit harvests and 2,680 hectares of banana groves. No monetary figures were given for the damage.
Hurricane Ivan dominated media coverage for nearly a week leading to its arrival. As Ivan followed a route that initially was expected to bring it straight through Cuba's capital, Castro attended state television's nightly "Mesa Redonda" discussion program.
During the live discussions, Castro chatted with Jose Rubiera, head of Cuba's National Meteorology Institute (search), about how hurricanes form, the history of major storms, and Ivan's likely trajectory.
Castro also addressed the need to protect schools and farm animals, with program host Randy Alonso frequently nodding in agreement.
One night when Rubiera, a household name in Cuba, wasn't present, Castro tracked him down on cell phone and repeated the meteorologist's answers aloud for the audience.
"I don't know if there exists in the world another president who puts aside his other functions to line up alongside his people," writer Celia Hart wrote in a Juventud Rebelde opinion article.
When it became clear Ivan would spare Havana, capital residents relaxed. But they still looked to Castro as they worried about friends and family in the west.
"Fidel hauled us to engaged safety, with his smile and multiple physical expressions," wrote Hart. "It was as if he was the one who sealed the windows of my house."