Calm in Post-Fidel Castro Cuba Demonstrates How Government Prepared Citizens for His Political Exit

For a moment, the 25-year-old baker panicked when he heard that Fidel Castro was stepping down as Cuba's president. He flicked a switch to see if power had been cut, and turned a tap to check for water. He wondered whether the distribution center would come through with milk rations for his two kids.

Then he took the day off and went fishing.

"Many people are sad today, but I don't think there will be tears because they expected this," Humberto said as he hooked a skimpy sardine for bait. "Fidel has been sick for a long time."

Cuba greeted Castro's resignation Tuesday with a calm that was stunning, given the years of predictions that the end of his rule would set off riots and send flotillas of refugees into the Florida Straits. There were no lines at gas stations, no panic-buying. Workers showed up at factories and children went to school in red-and-white uniforms. State television ran programs on medieval history and soap operas.

It was like any other day in Cuba — and that was a triumph for a carefully managed campaign in which the Communist state painstakingly prepared its citizens and the world for the political departure of its 81-year-old "Maximum Leader."

The process began in July 2006, when Castro underwent emergency surgery for an intestinal problem that still hasn't been fully explained. The Cuban leader released a letter saying he was "temporarily" ceding power to his younger brother, Raul, and began appearing in a steady stream of official photographs and videos to defuse rumors he was dead.

Authorities continued to insist Castro was on the mend, even after he failed to appear at major events such as last year's May Day parade in Havana. Castro released wordy essays and newspaper columns several times a week, easing into a new role as columinist-in-chief.

On Revolution Day in July, Raul Castro — not Fidel — gave the traditional national address, challenging Cubans to complain openly when they saw problems with the state's control of the economy and calling for unspecified "structural changes" in the socialist system.

The younger Castro gradually consolidated his power and grew into his role at the government's helm, while his brother kept silent except for writings that usually had little to do with Cuba and its future.

Fidel Castro seemed almost glum as he announced his retirement, suggesting in a published message to the Cuban people Tuesday that he had wanted to step down all along but other officials wouldn't let him. He said he had carefully prepared people for his departure.

"I was extremely careful to avoid raising expectations since I felt that an adverse ending would bring traumatic news to our people in the midst of the battle," he wrote. "Thus, my first duty was to prepare our people both politically and psychologically for my absence after so many years of struggle."

His campaign worked. Many Cubans expressed sadness and others hopes for change. But no one seemed fearful of sudden disruptions — much less the total collapse — of the socialist system Castro championed.

"The people don't want protests and aren't going to throw themselves into the street to beg for anything because they are satisfied with what they have," said Rainer Aguilera, a 27-year-old engineer walking his mother back from a doctor's appointment at one of Cuba's many free health clinics.

President Bush and leading dissidents on the island have called on the Cuban people to rise up against the government. Many Cubans have eagerly awaited small economic or social reforms — such as greater freedom to travel at home and abroad, and greater access to consumer goods, including cars and cell phones — that could take hold in the elder Castro's absence. Aguilera said those would be a far cry from a major political overhaul.

"Change will come," he said, "but probably not the change other people of the world are hoping for."

Humberto, the baker who like many Cubans balked at giving his last name to a foreign journalist for fear of government reprisal, said daily life is often a struggle on the island, but that free-market alternatives might be worse.

"I have adapted to living like this. It's what I know," he said. "I look at human development in other places, and I'm not convinced that change is a good thing."