The Associated Press
The day after Hurricane Gustav roared through western Cuba, families were salvaging belongings from their flattened homes when state-television cameras turned up.
Storm victims posing among the rubble soon began chanting “Fidel! Fidel!” Nearly a half-minute went by before anyone realized they were forgetting the man who replaced Fidel Castro as Cuba’s president six months ago.
“And Raul! And Raul!” someone yelled. Then came a revised chant: “Fidel and Raul!”
It was an easy mistake, considering the 77-year-old Raul Castro has not addressed the nation or appeared in public during the past three weeks — even though a tropical storm and two monster hurricanes have battered the island over the same period.
Tropical Storm Fay crashed ashore near the Bay of Pigs on Aug. 17, two weeks before Gustav slammed into the west, damaging at least 100,000 homes and crippling industry, food production and infrastructure. Then Hurricane Ike hit eastern Cuba on Sunday, killing five people, damaging at least 200,000 homes and forcing nearly a fourth of the population to evacuate as it moved nearly the length of the island before moving into the Gulf of Mexico.
Rather than tour the hardest-hit areas after each storm, Raul has dispatched vice presidents and army generals. Instead of a televised address, he has appeared only in a few shots, speaking by phone to officials in devastated areas and presiding over a closed-door meeting of civil defense leaders as they prepared for Ike in Havana.
His hands-off style is a far cry from that of Fidel Castro, who was fond of jumping in a jeep and following storms to see the damage and greeting the victims in person. The elder Castro often gave long speeches after hurricanes and appeared on government TV before they hit, quizzing Cuba’s top meteorologist for hours about computer models and possible storm paths.
The ailing, 82-year-old Fidel has not appeared in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. He continues to release newspaper columns every few days, however, and has written about the recent storms, noting that Gustav left parts of western Cuba looking like they were hit by an atomic blast.
Raul’s low profile has not been lost on Cubans.
“I think Raul should go out and see the victims,” a maintenance worker named Tomas said as he cleared debris from the damaged roof of a building in El Florida, a town in central Cuba where Ike washed out rows of sugar cane.
Referring to the 1959 rebel uprising that brought the Castro brothers to power, he added: “This revolution is good, but we need Raul to be in charge of it.”
The man declined to give his full name, saying he feared to be identified as having publicly criticized the government.
Another El Florida resident, Magdalena Gonzalez, defended the communist government, saying that thanks to policies under the Castros, storms that kill hundreds in other poor countries claim almost no lives here. Cuban officials routinely and effectively mobilize mass storm evacuations on the island, sending police and soldiers door-to-door to enforce compliance.
“We have a civil defense system that protects us,” said Gonzalez, a 66-year-old retired teacher who took in two elderly neighbors during the storm.
Nevertheless, others complained that Raul Castro’s government has not done enough to help those left homeless by Ike.
“With so much damage everywhere in the country, they haven’t done anything to help Las Delicias,” said Maria Gomez, referring to her city in the eastern province of Las Tunas. “No support has arrived, no food.”