Four months into Fidel Castro’s convalescence from an illness that is one of the world’s best kept secrets, the Cuban government, which controls almost every aspect of life, is under new management.

“It really doesn’t matter what Fidel has, or if he lives a few months or a few years. Politically he will never return as before,” a foreign official said after his latest video appearance. Miffed by rumours of his imminent death, a gaunt and frail Mr Castro was filmed late last month barely able to walk, but defiantly insisting he was far from dead. That convinced foreigners and Cubans alike that whatever ails him is grave indeed and the US that he will not live through 2007.

Cuban officials insist that Mr Castro is recovering from surgery for intestinal bleeding and consulting on important questions of state.

However, they have backtracked on whether he will be fit enough to attend a postponed birthday celebration scheduled for the end of the month.

Felipe Pérez Roque, foreign minister, gave a rare glimpse of what is going on.

Australia put forward a motion in the United Nat-ions last week to add the issue of jailed dissidents to Cuba’s annual resolution condemning the US em-bargo. It was Mr Castro who called the shots to defeat the motion, Mr Pérez Roque said.

“Fidel followed everything. He was on the phone to me in New York insisting we move a vote on Australia’s motion as soon as possible before Washington could gain support,” he

Mr Castro provisionally handed power to his younger brother Raúl, the defence minister, on July 31.

“Raúl and Fidel share the same ideology so forget about a new Soviet Union, China or capitalist transition,” Eduardo Machin, Communist party militant, said. “What’s changed is the style of governance.”

Raúl appears in the role of national leader at key events, but now the political space is being shared by half a dozen other officials.

An energy grid based on generators was being put into place, thousands of students from the developing world were training as doctors and vision was being restored to hundreds of thousands of Latin America’s poor when Mr Castro became ill. All three programmes continue, but without the almost daily claim that a solution has been found to the world’s ills and boasting of socialism’s merits over capitalism.

“There is less rhetoric and more trying to get to the centre of a problem and solve it,” said Daniela, a Havana university student.

The US insists a dictatorial succession is unacceptable. Washington has established new commissions to track Cuban-American tra-vel ban violators, increased propaganda broadcasts and put pressure on foreign banks and companies, but there are no long discourses by the Commandante in response. Gone are the blow-by-blow denunciations of Washington’s “crimes” over-riding television programming night after night.

“The other day we were talking at work about how everyone is doing what they always do without Fidel. It’s amazing,” Gabriela, a health worker, said.

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