While last week's festivities and marches went on without him, Castro's Cuba also proceeded with life as usual, full of contradictions, aspirations and the countless hardships of el bloqueo ("the blockade"), the U.S. economic embargo against the island.
"We hope things will change, but who knows?" said the young Cuban, who asked that his name not be published for fear of government reprisals. He sat in his three-bedroom apartment in central Havana, windows open to the tropical breezes and the cacophony of the street, surrounded by his favorite technological gadgets - an old Gold Star television, a DVD player, a tape player, a CD player, and a stack of American movie DVDs. He has a cellphone, but not a computer. "No one really knows what's going on, because we don't get any information."
The official position is that Castro may die, but his revolution won't.
"I don't think that anything institutional will change as a consequence," said Tomas Cardenas Garcia, a member of Cuba's national assembly and the president of the Commission of Local Organizations. "People will change, but the principles won't."
"We are a country of institutions," said Jorge Soberon, of the Ministry of External Relations. "We have the ideas and example of Fidel, and we know that will be with us forever."
International observers agree little is likely to change, at least immediately.
Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said: "The fact that Raul and Fidel have had these six months of preparation time has been heaven-sent for them. . . . Fidel could transfer the baton and have a measure of control.
"What happens next is less certain, but I would expect more continuity than change in the short term and mid-term. The forces of inertia will be strong."
Fernandez said, "The other issue is that there is no strong national opposition that is a serious threat to the regime." The challenge for Raul Castro, he said, will be to make enough economic changes to satisfy the population's desire for more economic freedom without threatening the power of the leaders.
"He'll have to deal with a very poor Cuba," Fernandez said. "But people don't expect much. Just opening a little bit will give him legitimacy and support."
The United States has long wanted to see an end to communist rule in Cuba.
During an interview on Fox News last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the goal was to have Cuba hold democratic elections.
"When there is a transition, whenever that comes, it has to be the goal of the United States and the goal of the international community to insist that the Cuban people get to make a choice," she said.
But "the U.S. won't be a factor" in influencing post-Fidel Cuba, Fernandez said. "The U.S. has painted itself into a corner and is ill-prepared for the succession."
Cuba's state-run economy has been slowly recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had long been the island's chief supplier. Oil-rich Venezuela, under President Hugo Chavez, has become Cuba's new favorite patron. And bright blue Chinese-made buses are now one of the most visible signs of the country's $500 million annual trade with China.
Government officials here say the island's economy grew by 11 percent last year; outside economists put the growth at about 8 percent.
Tourism, which now dwarfs sugar as Cuba's most important commodity, draws visitors from Europe, Latin America, Asia and Canada to chic new hotels and state-run restaurants and private paladeras, restaurants within private homes. U.S. citizens, though, are scarce, because a U.S. travel ban prevents most Americans from spending money here.
Cuba is a country of contradictions, a poor Caribbean state with a highly educated population and a free health-care system that is one of the best in the developing world. Food is rationed. An occasional horse-drawn cart shares the roads with ancient American Chevrolets and Soviet Ladas, toilet seats are rare and toilet paper is a luxury. The per-capita gross domestic product is about $3,500 a year, compared with $43,500 in the United States. Unemployment is virtually non-existent, but doctors and engineers may make more money driving taxis than practicing their professions.
Lillian Holloway, a Philadelphia student at a Cuban medical school in Havana, said there was a misconception in the United States that "everyone is trying to come [to the United States]. The ones that are most unhappy are the ones with the most. People aren't absolutely miserable. They would like to see things change, within the system."
Although the U.S. administration is a favorite target of Cuban officials and anti-Bush billboards are prominently displayed, Cuban citizens have a complex relationship with the United States. They are very fond of American music and movies and pirated tapes of TV shows, and many have relatives in the United States. But they are leery of what they see as U.S. designs on their country.
"People don't want the Cubans in Miami to come back," said the young Cuban in his apartment. "But every month, someone I know leaves. Just last month, one of my friends went to Guatemala, and then to the United States. I have to make new friends all the time."
As he talked, the doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of the daily food delivery. Each family gets a monthly food ration based on the number of people. Today, the food man brought 30 eggs for the month, a ration for three people. (The young man has not bothered to tell the authorities that his mother and brother have moved out, and that he and his girlfriend live alone in the apartment.) A day earlier, the food man brought three small pieces of chicken - a two-week supply.
Like many Cubans, the young man lives in two economies - the official one and the unofficial one. He makes most of his money selling pirated copies of DVDs. He has a friend whose black market business is repairing and selling cars, without government authorization.
"I'd like to open my own business, to work with cars, but that's not allowed now," said the friend.
Cars are very expensive - he says he paid the equivalent of $20,000 (borrowed from an uncle out of the country) for a 1998 Mitsubishi. But housing is very cheap. The young Cuban said he paid the equivalent of $600 to buy his three-bedroom apartment, and now he rents rooms to tourists to supplement his income.
"People expect better things," he said of the unknowable future. "But we have to live in the present."
Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To hear interviews with U.S. medical students in Cuba, go to http://go.philly.com/cubamed