Cuba on alert as Bush calls for democracy on the island
by Patrick LescotThu Aug 3, 10:35 PM ET
While Fidel and his younger brother Raul have yet to appear in public since the elder Castro handed power to his sibling Monday, Bush said the United States was ready to help Cuba's transition to democracy.
"I urge the Cuban people to work for democratic change on the island," Bush said in his first statement since Fidel temporarily relinquished power to Raul while he recovers from surgery.
"We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba," Bush said.
The US State Department earlier lashed out at the "imposition" of Raul Castro as interim president replacing the 79-year-old Fidel.
There was no immediate reaction from the Cuban government, but panelists on a government news show panned Bush's call.
The director of the Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) newspaper said that Bush had delivered "tin pot rhetoric" and "hollow blathering," while legislator Randy Alonso dismissed Bush's statement as "the epitome of delirium and dry inebriation."
While the island has largely been calm since the late Monday handover announcement, tension began to rise Thursday with announcements in the official media of "combat alerts" and reservists being called to military to duty.
"The means of combat are ready to defend us," announced the front page of the official newspaper Granma.
The news media, fully controlled by the government, called on Cubans to face "the threats of the empire and the terrorist mafia." The former refers to the United States, and the latter to the US-based Cuban exile community.
Calls from Cuban exiles in Florida for a popular uprising against the Communist regime have only exacerbated the sense of alert.
One group of Miami-based Cuban exiles is ready to defy a 44-year-old US embargo and is organizing a flotilla to sail to Cuba.
"We will do it when we reach the right moment," Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, told AFP. Sanchez said the group has three ships as well as fishing boats, and are trying to obtain a cargo ship to sail to the island when "the regime begins to crack."
In Havana, Juan Jose Rabilero, the national coordinator of the Committee to Defend the Revolution, called on teams of party loyalists to "prevent illegal departures" of people trying to flee the island by sea.
The committees, neighborhood units that gather more than seven million people, were "called to defend the motherland," he said.
The atmosphere of tension is also fueled by Raul Castro's failure to make a public appearance. To fill the void, the Granma newspaper re-ran a July 1 statement by Raul about the legitimacy of Cuba's leadership.
Cuba's enemy, Raul said in reference to the United States, "knows that the special trust the people put in the main leader of a revolutionary government is not passed on as if it were an inheritance to those who in the future may hold the country's top leadership positions.
"There is only one commander-in-chief of the Cuban Revolution, and it is the Communist Party," he was quoted as saying in the front-page story.
For many Havana residents, no news from the man now wielding Cuba's power -- who leads the government, 50,000-man armed forces and Communist Party -- was not necessarily good news.
Regime watchers are not surprised by Raul taking his time, but the uncertainty helped fuel speculation over whether Cuba might move toward some kind of transition, stay the same, or even see the government take a harder line.
On the street, many people said they were not that familiar with Raul, who was seen as a hardliner early in the Communist regime but is now said to admire China's embrace of communism and capitalism. He led pragmatic reforms such as opening up to tourism.
Fidel Castro, who turns 80 on August 13, has been heard from only in a statement attributed to him late Tuesday, saying he was in "good spirits." He was last seen in public July 26.