Frances Robles | McClatchy Newspapers
Seven months ago, Fidel Castro was reportedly gravely ill. These days, he’s reported to be taking long walks with old friends and calling other presidents to discuss global warming.
To hear National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon tell it, Castro is in fact preparing for a comeback. Last week, Alarcon said to foreign correspondents in Havana that Castro would be in “great shape” to run for president of the Council of State, his official title.
“I’d nominate him,” Alarcon said after a National Assembly session.
People who know Castro say the ailing president is getting lots of exercise, eating well and engaged in domestic and world affairs, Alarcon’s comments were the strongest suggestion yet that Castro might return to public life.
But his comments raise the question of whether a man who seven months ago was written off for good by many in the United States could return to power - and whether his acting president brother would let him.
“It depends on his health. If he’s 100 percent, nobody is going to stop him,” said Cuba expert Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute think tank in Virginia. “There seem to be indications he’s getting better.”
Castro ceded power, “temporarily” but for the first time in 47 years, on July 31 after announcing he had undergone surgery for an intestinal illness. His younger brother Raul, the defense minister, has taken the reins in a period marked by stability.
Although Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since then, the government recently released a transcript of a telephone call he made to Haiti’s Rene Preval and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Earlier, he phoned in to Chavez’s live radio show and chatted for about half an hour.
During a trip to Paris last week, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said Castro was in direct contact with Communist Party leaders and increasingly taking on more work.
“He has a telephone at his side and uses it a lot,” Raul Castro said last month, according to The Associated Press. “He’s consulted on the most important questions. He doesn’t interfere, but he knows about everything.”
In a comment that Cuba experts considered intriguing but likely a bit of humor, Raul added: “Luckily, he doesn’t call me much.”
Castro’s longtime friend, Colombian Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, told the newspaper El Pais last week that Castro walks “kilometers” and is improving “hour by hour.”
Castro, he said, is obsessed with detail, in good humor, and talking passionately about preferred topics, such as climate change.
Officially, Castro’s health remains a state secret, and it’s unclear whether statements that his brother and other close allies make about his status are truthful or over-optimistic.
But experts point out that many outsiders insisted Cuban officials were lying several months ago when they denied reports Castro was on the brink of death, only for Castro to eventually emerge in a late January video with Chavez, having regained considerable weight and looking much better.
Some Cuba-watchers still doubt that Castro will ever again wield the kind of total power he once had, and note that no new minister of defense has been named to replace Raul.
“I don’t think he’ll come back, period,” said Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights. “If he did, it would be as something like a senior consultant.”
The apparent improvement in Castro’s health now raises the question of whether a healthier Fidel means a working Fidel.
“All the things Fidel is doing are international relations/Chavez things: buddy-buddy telephone calls to foreign leaders,” said Baruch College Latin American studies professor Ted Henken, who travels to Cuba frequently. “They don’t seem to be real decision-making things that affect policy. Maybe that’s what he has allowed himself to graduate to.”
Henken said Raul actually needs for Fidel to linger on the sidelines, because the elder Castro offers legitimacy to his younger brother’s rule. Together they can play good-cop bad-cop, while Cubans wait for word on their nation’s future.
“They can keep this up for a pretty long time,” said former political prisoner Sebastian Arcos.
“The signal that he is back is when he appears in public. As long as he’s just on Chavez’s radio show, I don’t take it seriously.”