The Latell Report
He could still surprise all of us who have concluded he is suffering from terminal cancer. However, as unlikely as it seems now, Fidel Castro could yet emerge in public and deliver another speech before a live Cuban audience. That might even occur on December 2 when his belated 80th birthday observances were rescheduled to take place. If he were to rally sufficiently he could talk briefly via a video link from his convalescent quarters or be televised propped up in a studio or auditorium sharing homilies with Cuban audiences. There is perhaps nothing he would like to do more.
But what would the man who has spoken more words on the public record than any human in history want to say? Recent rumors emanating from the island that he is experiencing a deathbed religious catharsis, possibly even repenting and recanting, seem wildly improbable. He has never during nearly forty-eight years of public life openly confessed to morally indefensible behavior or admitted to regrets about his treatment of others. All his life he has been incapable of introspection of any type in the presence of witnesses. So if he were in fact to rally and deliver another oration it would most likely resemble his two most recent ones, both of which were void of any personal or emotional content or policy initiatives.
Castro’s speeches on July 26, 2006, the first delivered at dawn in Bayamo, in Granma province, in eastern Cuba, and the second, more perfunctory one only a few hours later in the provincial capital of Holguin are likely to be recorded as his last. He was already gravely ill on that 53rd anniversary of the Moncada attack that launched his revolutionary odyssey. He was operated on the next day for what the official announcement described as “severe intestinal bleeding,” although the surgery was not announced for another four days.
Raul, or some third tier leader could have substituted for him on July 26th as happened some years in the past. But perhaps Fidel knew that his condition was so grave that he might not have another chance to preside on his favorite revolutionary holiday. He had personally selected Bayamo, near the Sierra Maestra where he had fought as a guerrilla, to host the observances. He wanted to be with the humble guajiros of the eastern countryside, back possibly for the last time in that remote region where he had spent his troubled youth, where he had also both pejoratively and affectionately been called “guajiro.”
It was a sentimental journey for an old and sick man who had still never publicly acknowledged he had any interior life at all and whose health remained as always a state secret. But no matter how debilitated he was immediately following an exhausting journey to Argentina, the festivities in Bayamo were for him an obligatory ritual.
It was in the early morning when he walked slowly to take a seat at the front of a crowd assembled downtown. On cue, thousands of little paper Cuban flags began to flutter in greeting, waved by an otherwise subdued audience. It was only about seven A.M. Many had come a long way, from mountain hamlets and crossroads villages, bussed in by local communist party officials over rough roads in the middle of the night.
The Cuban media said that 100,000 were there in the spacious Plaza de la Patria, though other observers put the number much lower. Politburo members and top civilian and military leaders were also in attendance in a show of solidarity, but Raul was not present. He was no doubt preoccupied with organizing the military and security forces that would be deployed and ready for any eventuality once Fidel’s condition was revealed to the populace.
The sun was just beginning to rise when Castro began speaking. In earlier years it had been more common for him to conclude speeches in the early morning hours near sunrise, but he and his doctors knew he would have to avoid the summer sun that day. Reading from a prepared text, he boasted of accomplishments in reducing infant mortality, improving health and education, increasing construction projects, and generally improving the quality of life in that remote region. But his recounting of excruciating statistical details was in a passionless monotone.
He said nothing memorable or at all revealing of his state of mind in those moments of what must have been personal anguish, suspecting that the speeches that day might well be his last. Unlike many of his previous July 26 appearances, there was no reminiscing about his triumphal revolutionary feats, no boasting of victories against “imperialism.” He criticized the United States and capitalism, but vaguely and with no real feeling. He went through some bouts of coughing, sipped tea, and once became annoyed that the crowd was not waving their little flags energetically enough.
“It is good exercise,” he told them, “so keep on waving them.”
Castro talked for almost two and a half hours. That speech, and the shorter one a few hours later in Holguin, were sodden rhetorical anticlimaxes to the nearly six decades of his remarkable public performances. His audience in Bayamo was tired and sullen. There was nothing he said that rallied or inspired them or raised new hopes for a better day. They were merely going through the motions with him.
He announced no new policies or initiatives, shared no new visions or hopes, and in fact did not speak at all about the future. He gave perhaps a single hint of his deteriorating condition, the only sentence he spoke that day that was both personal and uncharacteristically reflective.
“I will fight for the rest of my life, until the last second, as long as I have the use of my reason, to do something good, something useful.”
So in what may prove to have been the last of his public utterances, Fidel Castro was as unyielding and unchastened as ever in his long career.
Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.
The Report, analyzing Cuba’s contemporary domestic and foreign policy, is published monthly except August and December and distributed by the electronic information service of the Cuba Transition Project (CTP) at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS).
The Latell Report is a publication of ICCAS and no government funding has been used in its publication. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICCAS and/or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).