By Ernesto Hernández Busto
I think it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of Fidel Castro's return to the media spotlight. The comandante turned capricious foreign minister has abandoned his insignias of rank to dedicate himself to recovering an international role, one jeopardized by his younger brother following criticism of human rights violations on the island, not to mention the dullness that suffuses anything touched by Raul.
The real Cuban newspaper of today is the on-line Cubadebate. It sets the tone for the Cuban press and dictates the information priorities which are then picked up by the daily broadsheet Granma. In this sense, Fidel Castro and his advisers have understood the relative importance of Internet news versus the printed press. Fidel has launched his propaganda campaigns from Cubadebate, which has much greater resonance than many analysts have been willing to grant it.
Fidel Castro's support for Iran is not a trivial issue: while Ahmadinejad's regime doesn't care for his media comments about the real possibilities of a war with the United States – they would prefer to keep buying time to develop their plans to become a new nuclear power – Fidel is determined to raise worldwide alarm and "fire up" public opinion so as to make a preventative strike more costly to the American government, from a media standpoint, than the war in Iraq. His hopeful appeal to Obama's common sense is a poison dart, one of those "bear hugs" which in reality is intended to limit his adversary's ability to respond. This has always been one of Fidel Castro's tricks in international politics, and judging by his recent cunning, his capacity for Machiavellian machinations is undiminished.
At the same time, Fidel Castro intervenes in the delicate Latin American arena, this time not only as a symbolic supporter of Chavez, but as a critic of Mexico's National Action Party (PAN), with some untimely declarations that erode the legitimacy of that party in the 2012 elections. Meanwhile, his accusations against Colombia's ex-president Uribe, at a time when the recently elected Juan Manuel Santos appears to be giving in to the arrogance of Chavez, re-tilt the balance in favor of interests contrary to American policy in the region.
None of this would have real political importance if it were archived in the pages of the Communist Party organ, or in the marathon television sessions with which the official channels bore the Cuban people. But these campaigns are aimed, above all, at an international audience – the corridors of the United Nations, state departments and foreign ministries, international headlines – and at the Internet, fueling expectations and influence in sectors for which Castroism had become little more than a symbolic consolation.
Fidel Castro is now playing politics with new media, vastly more effective than his six-hour speeches in the Plaza. Stuttering and senile, he has become the Ayatollah of the extreme Left, and is recovering a space for propaganda that injects hormones into the most reactionary elements of Castroism while functioning as a screen to distract viewers from the intricacies of immobility on the island.
The return of Fidel
Fidel Castro, warning of nuclear war, once again an everyday fixture in Cuba
August 17, 2010
Fidel Castro's return has been almost as complete as his absence.
When he fell ill and nearly died four years ago, Castro disappeared from public view entirely, the status of his health treated as a state secret.
Now he's back, and once more an everyday fixture in Cuban homes, as government television cameras track his campaign to warn the world of a coming nuclear war.
Given the all-or-nothing character of the white-bearded commandante, who turns 84 today, it's no surprise that Castro's reemergence has left many Cubans and Cuba-watchers wondering how far the comeback will go. Has he returned to rule Cuba again?
Castro himself addressed the question in an interview with a group of Venezuelan reporters broadcast on Cuban television Monday night.
"My job is to draw attention to topics and events and let others decide," Castro explained. "You should understand that our (leaders) are not people I should order around or tell what to do. I want them to think for themselves."
The division of labor between Castro and his 79-year-old brother Raul, who took over Cuba's leadership temporarily, then permanently, has hewn to clear boundaries so far. Fidel has said virtually nothing about Cuba's domestic problems since his return to public life, even though he spent nearly five decades shaping the island's now-rickety socialist system.
Instead, he sticks to world affairs, and specifically, the ardent belief that a U.S. and Israeli confrontation with Iran is imminent, and it will lead to an atomic exchange. He convened a special session of Cuba's parliament over the weekend to discuss the theory, urging delegates to help convince U.S. President Barack Obama not to push the button.
"Obama won't give the order to attack if we persuade him not to," Castro told the audience. "A lot of people are with us in the effort."
Castro's devotion to the topic is becoming reminiscent of his old campaigns, for the return of 6-year-old shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez in 2000 or the failed push to harvest 10 million tons of sugar in 1970. Cuba's state-run media follow Castro's lead and cover the nuclear theme exhaustively, without a single dissenting voice to question the likelihood of such a scenario.
Castro's detractors say his antiwar crusade is a smokescreen, loaded with underlying messages.
Dissident writer and activist Miriam Leiva said Castro's silence on his brother's tentative economic reforms and efforts to improve relations with the United States is a signal that he doesn't approve of such changes.
"I think he chose this moment because it was obvious something was moving in the country," she said, citing the ongoing release of dozens of political prisoners as part of an unprecedented dialogue with the island's church leaders.
Also, she said, "he can't be away from the spotlight."
Even if Castro doesn't talk about Cubans' everyday concerns, "he wants people to feel he's there, he's not away, and that he could have a say," she said. "But it's not possible for him to come back the way he was before, because Raul has put all of his own people in place."
It's not clear what effect Castro's return might have on the latest attempts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. The Obama administration is expected to further ease Cuba travel restrictions in the coming weeks, allowing more Americans to visit the island and more U.S. airports to set up Havana flights.
In his Monday appearance, Castro also backed off from previous assurances that the "Cuban Five," a group of intelligence agents held in U.S. prisons, would be freed by the end of the year. He acknowledged to the Venezuelan reporters that his prediction had unsettled some in the government, but stood by the claim that they would return before December.
Few Cubans said they were surprised by Castro's return, and as the novelty of seeing him on television again has worn off, several said his voice already seemed familiar, as if he'd never left.
Sitting along the Havana seawall to escaping the heat on a recent night, Juana Maria Rodriguez said she was glad to see Castro back, and she took his nuclear warnings quite seriously. "It would bring so much damage to the world," she said, "humanity would be destroyed."
Rodriguez said there was never any confusion for her about who's in charge. "Fidel is the leader of this Revolution," she said, "even if that's not what they say publicly.
"Fidel Castro, Present and Past"
By Yoani Sanchez
Fidel Castro's return to public life after a four-year absence provokes conflicting emotions here. His reappearance surprised a people awaiting, with growing despair, the reforms announced by his brother Raúl. While some weave fantasies around his return, others are anxious about what will happen next. The return of a famous figure is a familiar theme in life as in fiction — think Don Quixote, Casanova or Juan Domingo Perón.
But another familiar theme is disappointment — of those who find that the person who returns is no longer the person who left, or at least not as we remember him. There is often a sense of despair surrounding those who insist on coming back. Fidel Castro is no exception to this flaw inherent in remakes. The man who appeared on the anniversary of "Revolution Day" last week bore no resemblance to the sturdy soldier who handed over his office to his brother in July 2006. The stuttering old man with quivering hands was a shadow of the Greek-profiled military leader who, while a million voices chanted his name in the plaza, pardoned lives, announced executions, proclaimed laws that no one had been consulted on and declared the right of revolutionaries to make revolution.
Although he has once again donned his olive-green military shirt, little is left of the man who used to dominate television programming for endless hours, keeping people in suspense from the other side of the screen. The great orator of times long past now meets with an audience of young people in a tiny theater and reads them a summary of his latest reflections, already published in the press. Instead of arousing the fear that makes even the bravest tremble, he calls forth, at best, a tender compassion. After a young reporter calmly asked a question, she followed up with her greatest wish: "May I give you a kiss?" Where is the abyss that for so many years not even the most courageous dared to jump up and ask him a question?
A significant sign that Fidel Castro's return to the microphones has not been going over well is that even his brother refused to echo, in his most recent speech to parliament, the former leader's gloomy prognostication of a nuclear armageddon that will start when the United States launches a military attack against North Korea or Iran. Many analysts have pointed out that the man who was known as the Maximum Leader is hardly qualified to assess the innumerable problems in his own country, yet he turns his gaze to the mote in another's eye.
This pattern is familiar, with his discussions of the world's environmental problems, the exhaustion of capitalism as a system and, most recently, predictions of nuclear war. Others see a veiled discontent in his apparent indifference toward events in Cuba. Yet this thinking forgets the maxim: Even if he doesn't censure, if Caesar does not applaud, things go badly. It is unthinkable that Fidel Castro is unaware of the appetite for change that is devouring the Cuban political class; it would be naive to believe that he approves.
For years, so many lives and livelihoods have hung on the gestures of his hands, the way he raises his eyebrows or the twitch of his ears. Fidel watchers now see him as unpredictable, and many fear that the worst may happen if it occurs to him to rail against the reformers in front of the television cameras. Perhaps this is why the impatient breed of new wolves do not want to stoke the anger of the old commander, who is about to turn 84.
Some who intended to introduce more radical changes are now crouching in their spheres of power, waiting for his next relapse. Meanwhile, those who are worried about the survival of "the process" are alarmed by the danger his obvious decline poses to the myth of the Cuban revolution personified, for 50 years, in this one man. Why doesn't he stay quietly at home and let us work, some think, though they dare not even whisper it.
We had already started to remember him as something from the past, which was a noble way to forget him. Many were disposed to forgive his mistakes and failures. They had put him on some gray pedestal of the history of the 20th century, capturing his face at its best moment, along with the illustrious dead. But his sudden reappearance upended those efforts. He has come forward again to shamelessly display his infirmities and announce the end of the world, as if to convince us that life after him would be lacking in purpose.
In recent weeks, he who was once called The One, the Horse or simply He, has been presented to us stripped of his captivating charisma. Although he is once again in the news, it has been confirmed: Fidel Castro, fortunately, will never return.
Originally published in the Washington Post, August 5, 2010