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'Axis of Evil' gathers in Cuba

HAVANA, Cuba -- This city is festooned with signs and banners welcoming foreign leaders to a gathering that looks like a reunion of President George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil." Cuban officials tell me the point is not to attack America, but many of the billboards here tell a different story: they portray President Bush with fangs, call him an "assassin" and even compare him to Adolf Hitler. (The Castro government is accusing the U.S. of harboring a man known here as the Osama bin Laden of Cuba  -- a Cuban exile now jailed in Texas on immigration charges, but accused in Havana of terror plots. It's part of the backdrop for the angry rhetoric against the U.S.)

Brian will be anchoring from here tomorrow night, which is a very big deal. Cuba TV -- part of the government here -- has already talked about his anticipated arrival.

For one thing, Havana is always interesting, and Cuba has not permitted any foreign journalists in since Fidel Castro turned over power -- he said temporarily -- to his brother Raul and a triumvirate of officials on July 31st. This is our first chance to talk to Cubans about how they view this change after a half century of Fidel's rule.

We've found some unease, but less than you might think. It's clear that Fidel prepared well for a succession. Even five years ago, after he fainted during a mid-day rally, he had told me his brother would succeed him and that the revolution would live on. This is not what the current White House hopes, or expects. It has set aside $80 million to encourage anti-Castro dissent. Interestingly, I interviewed a prominent dissident yesterday who said that she and her friends don't want money from the U.S. government. Taking American support would undermine their credibility here and help the regime portray them as tools of the U.S. By the way, representatives of the Communist Party visited here last weekend and told her not to organize any protests this week while the summit is in session. Their warning did not stop her and the other "women in white" -- wives and other supporters of 60 men jailed three years ago for criticism of the government -- from donning their white dresses and conducting their silent protest by attending Sunday mass.

Of course, we are also here to cover the summit, a meeting of so-called "non-aligned nations." It is an artifact of the Cold War, of countries seeking power for themselves outside either the East or the West. When they first gathered in Belgrade in 1961, Fidel Castro was 35, a revolutionary leader admitting that he was a communist. In 1979, at the peak of the Cold War, he hosted the annual gathering. Now 80 and ailing, Castro was supposed to be greeting the 50 heads of state arriving here today to talk about world poverty and criticize U.S. policy. Instead, he's in his hospital room, but his aides say he is recovering and giving orders by phone. That said, there is a real sense here of the passing of an era. No one in government says Castro will be back in charge. Friends, like an Argentinian author who visited him yesterday, are trying to perpetuate the legend. This visitor described Castro as looking like Don Quixote, especially after losing so much weight since his surgery. Another visitor today -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- described Fidel as looking like the Man of La Mancha, but "victorious and invincible" (unlike Cervantes' dreamer).

Buoyed by billions in oil revenues which have helped Cuba offset the crippling affects of the U.S. economic embargo, Chavez was greeted as a hero when he arrived today. With Castro offstage, Chavez is asserting himself as the next leader of the movement. But he isn't the only focus of attention: Iran's President Ahmadinejad is also in Havana and will likely get an endorsement for his nuclear standoff with the West.

In many ways, this summit will rehearse next week's arguments over Iran, Iraq and North Korea at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The U.S. is not without some support here -- from Iraq, Pakistan, and India, among others countries -- but behind the scenes or not, Fidel Castro is still orchestrating this performance. And even if he only shows up for a curtain call, if he's physically able, he will not pass on one last opportunity to hammer away at his nemesis to the north.

Editor's note: Andrea discussed the scene in Cuba today on MSNBC-TV. You can watch her report here. She'll also talk with Brian on tonight's broadcast.