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Cuba says Fidel healing, Raul in control

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Cuban army reservists patrol Old Havana, Cuba, after Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

Cuban army reservists patrol Old Havana, Cuba, after Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

Jorge Rey, Associated Press

HAVANA — The Communist leadership assured Cubans on Friday that Raul Castro was in firm control as acting president, and the health minister said Fidel Castro was "recovering satisfactorily" from intestinal surgery.

The government also issued its first decree since Fidel temporarily stepped down Monday for the first time in 47 years: The Foreign Ministry condemned Israel's bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana, calling it "cowardly, vile and criminal" and urging the world to force an immediate cease-fire.

The statement came as the government insisted it was operating normally, even though the island's longtime leader has temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raul, the defense minister.

Some Cuban exiles, seizing on the unprecedented transfer of power, called for the U.S. government to do more to encourage a democratic transition on the island. But Cuba's government appeared undaunted.

"The unity and strength of the Revolution is being reinforced," said Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.

"We Cubans are prepared for the defense . . . and Raul is there firmly at the helm of the nation, of the Revolutionary Armed Forces," Granma said.

Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer, a longtime party leader and physician, said Fidel "underwent surgery from which he is recovering satisfactorily."

During a visit to Guatemala, Balaguer said in a radio interview that Cuban officials had received "messages of support from the most far-flung places of the world" since Fidel fell ill.

Neither Castro brother has appeared publicly since the 75-year-old Raul was given temporary stewardship of Cuba.

Culture Minister Abel Prieto urged people to be patient.

"We need to wait for Fidel's next message," he told journalists at a presentation of musician Silvio Rodriguez's latest CD. "And Raul will appear in due time . . . people know who Raul is."

Prieto emphasized that things were running smoothly in Cuba.

"This is a society that is functioning, that is working normally," he said. "People are worried, and wanting to know more about the health of Fidel, but at the same time, they are conducting themselves appropriately."

Rodriguez, one of the island's most famous singers, said he would give anything to the leader, even "his life."

The Communist Party also launched a campaign emphasizing Raul's revolutionary roots and loyalty to his older brother, whose 80th birthday is Aug. 13, and saying the revolution would continue during Fidel's recovery.

Granma recounted Raul's decision to assume responsibility for the disastrous 1953 attack on a military barracks that launched the Cuban Revolution after he believed his brother was killed.

When he discovered Fidel had survived, Raul returned to his role as soldier, according to the article, adding: "This is a story that cannot be ignored in the face of today's events."

The newspaper rejected President Bush's call for democracy on the island, saying his statement Thursday ignored that Cuba is functioning normally. "What uncertainty is the president talking about?" Granma asked.

William Sanchez, an attorney for the Cuban-American non-profit Democracy Movement, urged Bush to tell Cuba to set an elections timetable and to let Cuban-Americans go to the island by boat to help with a political transition.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the Cuban people not to flee the island for Florida because of political uncertainty.

Rice promised the Cuban people humanitarian assistance when they begin "to chart a new course" after long years of communist rule.

"We encourage the people of Cuba to work at home for positive change," Rice said, signaling that the United States would not favor a mass exodus of the kind that Cubans undertook in 1980 and 1994.

Her remarks to the Cuban people were aired on the heavily jammed TV Marti and Radio Marti.