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In Havana, Cubans carry on quietly, as worries grow for what comes now that Fidel Castro is dead

Young women join a gathering one day after the death of Fidel Castro in Havana on Saturday. Cuba will observe nine days of mourning for the former president who ruled Cuba for half a century. [Ramon Espinosa | Associated Press]
Young women join a gathering one day after the death of Fidel Castro in Havana on Saturday. Cuba will observe nine days of mourning for the former president who ruled Cuba for half a century. [Ramon Espinosa | Associated Press]
Published Nov. 27, 2016

HAVANA — Years ago, Fidel Castro's death might have delivered a shock to the island he ruled for 47 years, a blow that could lead to a crisis of leadership. It's what his longtime enemies hoped for.

But by the time his death came quietly Friday evening at age 90, Castro had already receded from daily life in Cuba. His passing was an occasion Cubans have been preparing for since poor health forced him to step down temporarily in 2006.

Havana was mostly quiet Saturday as Cubans woke up to the news, with few visible displays of mourning.

Castro's death will nonetheless mark a turning point for Cubans who grew up listening to his marathon speeches, living under the moral and legal strictures of his socialist revolution and suffering the consequences when they strayed from conformity.

Now the island's younger generations will mostly be left to sort out his legacy, a challenge that will only intensify as the country's economic problems mount and Castro's 85-year-old brother Raúl, who succeeded him as president in 2008, also fades from power.

"He's an example for all young people," said Alejandro Perez, 21, a university student waiting for the bus Saturday morning along Havana's Avenue of the Presidents. "We'll keep fighting for his ideals," he assured.

But Castro's death comes at moment that may test that idea like never before.

President Barack Obama has re-established relations with Cuba and the first commercial flight from the United States to Havana in more than a half-century is scheduled to land on Monday. Cubans have enthusiastically welcomed the thaw in tensions with the United States, and many dread the possibility that President-elect Donald Trump could roll back the reforms.

The socialist system Castro has declared "irrevocable" affords Cubans basic access to health care, education and food rations, but has failed for decades to provide them with enough income to survive on. And the country's economic outlook is getting worse.

Castro lost his political protege, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013, and he was also the island's main economic benefactor. Chavez sent billions of dollars' worth in petroleum shipments, helping Cuba keep the lights on and the air conditioners running, with enough left over for the government to re-export the oil. But oil prices have plunged, leaving Venezuela in an economic crisis. In Cuba, economic growth is once more stalled and emigration is at a 10-year high.

Modest steps toward economic liberalization undertaken by Raúl Castro have led to a boom in small businesses, especially restaurants and bed-and-breakfast rentals, but the opening has lost momentum. The government has kept American firms at arm's length despite a surge of interest from U.S. businesses after Obama's normalization moves.

Many of the liberalization moves introduced by Raúl Castro represent an implicit rejection of his older brother's rigid state-dominated economic model. "Raúl Castro will have a freer hand now," former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said.

"It's not that Fidel Castro would have opposed him. But it's like when you have a sick relative and don't want to upset them. There are things Raúl probably didn't want to do while his brother was still around."