MIAMI HERALD STAFF REPORT
HAVANA - On a crisp and clear day, with a light breeze coming off Havana's famed seaside Malecón drive, a lot of Cubans were still talking Wednesday, quietly but forcefully, about Fidel Castro's decision to retire.
Over and over, they talked about change.
Over and over, they talked about watching whatever they want on TV. About the lives they see but can't touch.
About the need to breathe.
''The Cuban has been like a dolphin -- he's been in water up to his neck and he still applauds,'' said Julio, 35, a pedicab driver. ``That's changing now. What they give us is not enough.''
Cubans have been complaining more in recent months -- about their rock-bottom salaries, the milk they can't find for their children, the hotels reserved for foreign tourists, the trips abroad they can't take.
And they seem more willing than before to blame those ills on the island's communist economic system now that Raúl Castro, who has called for open debates on the country's shortcomings, appears ready to take full control after brother Fidel announced Tuesday that he is stepping down as president.
Cuba's legislative National Assembly will meet Sunday to elect a new president of its ruling Council of State -- the top title Fidel Castro has held since 1976. Raúl, 76, long designated as Fidel's successor, is expected to win the title.
''People are realizing that you don't have to be communist to be a revolutionary,'' Julio added, using the word in a way that seemed to imply criticism of the Cuban revolution's lack of change in decades.
``A revolutionary is just someone who wants change. Things here have to change. Now that Fidel Castro has left power, we don't know if it will be three days or three months, but in the next year or two. Things need to happen.''
Ariel, 28, a cabdriver, echoed Julio's take.
''We see the tourists coming in, we talk to them, but it's a life we can't touch,'' Ariel said as he looked around nervously. ``Everything here is so controlled that people are starting to question everything.''
That evolution -- that willingness to question the only political and economic system that most Cubans have ever known -- has been fueled by the flow of foreign visitors, the numerous pirate satellite TV antennas and underground music, much of it from Miami.
''Before, we were happy as socialists, because that's what we thought we wanted,'' Julio said, going on to quote from a song making the rounds in Cuba that he identified as Quien Manda, or ``Who's in Charge.''
Hay que sacarlo de donde esta porque el daño no se va -- He must be removed from his place, because the damage is not going away.
''I listen to that, and I watch Univisión, but for that they'd arrest me if they caught me,'' Julio added. ``That can't be.''
Armando, 56, a biologist, argued that the lack of hubbub in Cuba over Castro's decision to step down underlined the calm that has prevailed on this island nation since the Cuban leader underwent emergency surgery in June 2006 and handed over power to his brother ``temporarily.''
''There has been such tranquility in Cuba these past two years that he has been sick, because I believe what people have felt is relief,'' he said. ``Now that he's officially stepped down, the people can really breathe.''
Raúl has been promising profound reforms to fix the nation's many economic ills since his brother became ill, but he adopted only minor changes so far because of apparent resistance from Castro.
For the past 19 months, unlike his charismatic and long-winded brother, Raúl nevertheless has kept his speeches short and declined to call for the massive street marches that Castro was noted for.
''Now I can watch my Brazilian telenovelas without worrying they're going to be interrupted by a six-hour speech,'' Armando said. ``We Cubans have to entertain ourselves somehow. Little things like that matter.''
Although many Cubans are anticipating a better future under Raúl Castro, some also say they look back on the old with a certain nostalgia for the only ruler they have known since 1959.
''Even though I don't like his system, I still feel some nostalgia, since he is will no longer be the head our government,'' Armando said.
Cubans interviewed for this story seemed to have different theories about who is going to be the next president, with most of the older generation betting on Raúl and the young often tending toward Vice President Carlos Lage or Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, both much younger.
But in Cuba, change still comes slowly, when it comes.
''It's too soon to put someone young in,'' Armando said.
The name of The Miami Herald correspondent who wrote this dispatch, as well as the surnames of the Cubans interviewed, were withheld because the reporter lacked Cuban government permission to work on the island.