As you stroll through the streets of Havana, the overwhelming influence of the Cuban leader, universally known only as “Fidel”, over the country is clear to see. Posters brandish his image and slogans proclaim the triumph of the revolution of which he was the figurehead until February this year.
Onay Hernandez Gonzalez, a student studying English at the University of Habana, said: “This was a huge surprise for all Cuban citizens. Although we knew he had provisionally handed over his high offices to the Vice–President Raul Castro because of his poor health, we never thought this would be a definitive decision. The Cuban people never thought he was going to proclaim such a thing, because he had been elected deputy of the National Assembly in early February. The majority of people were expecting him to go back to the presidency when he got better, which is why his resignation was a shock for everyone in Cuba”.
However, Castro has made it clear to Cubans that they have not seen the last of him. Fidel is still the First Secretary of the Communist Party, the highest force of the state and he indicated in Granma that he would continue to take part in government events and activities, explaining “I am not saying goodbye to you. I want only to fight on as a soldier of ideas”.
The chronic economic issues the country faces are not a secret to anyone, but it is not Castro who shoulders the blame. Any complaints are levelled at the system rather than its leaders, although with the risks of speaking out against the government this is hardly surprising.
The crippling economic effects of the US blockade have allowed the Castro regime to blame many of Cuba’s ills on the United States, Castro is seen as keeping Cuba afloat in the face of their traditional adversary. Onay added “We thought that Fidel´s efforts to keep the country working, not paralysed, were not going to continue without Fidel´s direction, but this fear has dwindled since Raul Castro took control of the country. Life in Cuba is developing as though Fidel were commanding the isle.”
Cubans are upbeat about what the future might hold, with one third year student at the University of Havana saying “ improvements are going to be attained, you know, a new president always comes with new projects. However, we have to take into account that these possible projects might be held up because of the blockade we´re facing.”
Martha Vega, a professor at the University of Havana, described the affection that many Cubans felt towards the man who was the leader of their historic revolution and the sadness that he was no longer their president but understood his reasons for deciding to step down.
The upheaval that many had predicted would accompany Castro’s exit from power has yet to be seen, and there has been little sign of dramatic change from his successor.
Nonetheless in recent weeks some changes have been seen, for example the legalisation of mobile phone ownership and there are rumours that the travel restrictions Cubans face are to be reconsidered.