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World

Fidel Castro's Hold On Cuba Persisted Until His Death

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're about to hear something that nobody has heard in decades - the sound of Cuba without Fidel Castro. He left power back in 2008, passing the presidency to his brother, but his hold on the Cuban people persisted until his death, which was announced on Friday. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Havana. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you been seeing and hearing?

KAHN: It's quite unusual here in Havana. I'm in the capital, and it's a very subdued scene here. Usually on a Saturday, Sunday night, there's, tons of people out in the street all along the iconic sea wall, the Malecon, listening to music, talking, drinking. There's none of that now. There's nobody out celebrating. Bars are closed. Discotheques are closed. There's no alcohol being sold in many restaurants. It's a very subdued scene here. A taxi driver told me last night that the police even told him to turn down his radio, that they want this to be a very solemn time in Havana, and it is. It's very quiet and subdued on the streets.

INSKEEP: OK, so enforced mourning. Is there also a little bit of uncertainty about what happens now?

KAHN: Well, you know, Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, has been clearly in power for at least 10 years. Fidel became ill in 2006, turned over power then mostly, and then officially in 2008. So nobody's expecting any sort of convulsions or big changes for now, but there is an uncertainty about what this means without Fidel in Cuba. And as you said, at the beginning, you know, this is the first time in decades that there is Cuba without Fidel.

INSKEEP: What role did he play in Cuban life toward the end, even if he was not formally in power?

KAHN: He was really out of the limelight a lot. But in 2016, we heard from Fidel two times. One was right after the historic visit that President Obama made here in March to Cuba. Fidel came out and condemned the United States. He had to make a few negative statements, saying - about Obama's visit, stating he was not in accordance with this opening and the warming of relations.

And then again, a month later, when the Cuban Communist Party held its once-every-five-years Congress. He came out, and we saw him in public. He was shown on national television. He looked very frail and always in - he's in jogging suits now, not those green army fatigues that we always used to see him in. And, again, he said - praising communism and saying that Cuba does not need the United States. But pretty much, he was out of the limelight.

He occasionally wrote reflections in the national state media, but we did not hear from him much - just those two times. And then, on his 90th birthday, he wrote a rambling letter in one of the state newspapers, again condemning the United States and criticizing Obama.

INSKEEP: Carrie, you've been to Cuba quite a few times over the years, haven't you?

KAHN: Well, since the opening, which was in December of 2014, journalists were given more visas to come in and talk to people, and people were much more open to talk about what their hopes and aspirations were. So I have been here many times in the last two years.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you have a good sense of what Cubans thought of Castro? We know that he ruled, in large part, through oppression, but was he, in some ways, still popular with a portion of the people?

KAHN: It all depends on who you talk to, Steve. I was talking with people all day yesterday when I got here, and you just hear a range of comments and a range of emotions. From older people in this apartment building that I'm staying in right now, they have a - a little shrine with candles lit in the lobby and pictures of Fidel and they are taking turns standing watch over their shrine, and people are saying that they're in pain. But then I went to parks, where there are few people out, and one man who - I think he was in his 60s - was telling me just how he's glad that he's gone and he was a dictator and now they're hoping for more change to happen.

INSKEEP: Is there any sign that people are ready for big changes now?

KAHN: Well, there always has been a question about - Raul had been the one who really began to open the economy more. He's the one who made the overtures to the United States and allowed for the warming of relations. But in those last two years, there's been fits and starts to this opening. You know, you'll see more businesses being given more permission to do business, but then they'll be sort of a retrenchment by the regime.

They'll, you know, make things more difficult for small businesspeople. And a lot of people have thought that maybe it was the older brother, Fidel, that was putting the brakes on these economic reforms and the opening. So we'll just have to see if that was the truth. Nobody knows in this opaque, very secretive government here.

INSKEEP: And I guess, to be clear, you're talking about economic openings, not political openings at this time.

KAHN: Exactly. There have been few political openings, especially in the last two years. There have been more detentions and more - of human rights activists and people fighting for open political expression here. As I said, there are fits and starts, and we'll have to see where it goes now in a Cuba without Fidel Castro.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Havana. Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.