Jeff Franks | Reuters
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro turned 82 on Wednesday, still a world and national figure even though he has not been seen in public since falling ill two years ago.
After ruling for almost 50 years, Castro follows a special diet for an undisclosed illness that required intestinal surgery and admits he does not have the strength he once had.
But he occasionally surfaces in videos on state-run television. The most recent showed him to be more robust than those aired a few months after his July 2006 operation.
Raul Castro, who replaced his brother provisionally until the National Assembly formally elected him president in February, described Fidel Castro in a July speech as still very active, engaged and at times better informed than he was.
“His day is very busy—exercising, writing, reflecting, thinking. Sometimes it is he who gives me international news that I have not had time to read,” Raul Castro said.
Tellingly, he said he had given his brother a speech beforehand to review and was “overjoyed” when he got word back that Fidel Castro “agreed completely” with its contents.
The brotherly connection has kept Fidel Castro close to power, but debate goes on about how much influence he wields.
Many believe Fidel, trying to keep Cuba close to his socialist vision, has slowed economic reforms that Raul initiated when he took power.
Others say he is no longer much of a factor in governing.
Fidel has downplayed his role in newspaper columns he has taken to writing, but his words appear to still carry weight.
After he wrote columns denouncing the use of food for fuel, a sugar ministry official said last week Cuba had scaled back previously-announced plans to greatly increase ethanol from sugar derivatives.
CUBANS NOT SURPRISED
Cubans, accustomed to Fidel running the show, were not surprised, said 69-year-old retiree Aida Flores.
“Fidel is doing almost the same that he’s always done,” she said. “Raul is not going to stop listening to his advice.”
Cuba expert Frank Mora at the National War College in Washington said Fidel Castro is not “the navigator, but I do believe he has a kind of veto influence over big issues.
“By the same token, Fidel realizes that he is no longer president and has to allow his successors to chart their own course, within certain broad parameters,” he said.
Castro took power in a 1959 revolution against a U.S.-backed dictator and quickly became a leading Cold War figure when he sided his country, located at the doorstep of the United States, with the Soviet Union.
His defiance of the United States and his willingness to inject Cuba in international affairs by war or words gave him and his small country an outsized global presence.
Now in the twilight of his life, said Cuba expert Dan Erikson at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, Castro “has managed to both organize a political succession to his brother Raul and to chaperon the new government.”
“Today, as the prolific ex-president of Cuba, Fidel Castro is both making history and writing it, an enviable feat for any political leader.”