BY BRIAN LATELL | commentary in the Miami Herald
Offstage for almost three and a half years—infirm, debilitated and mostly confined to convalescent quarters—Fidel Castro nonetheless reasserted himself in 2009 as the dominant force in the Cuban leadership.
Now beginning his 52nd year in power—he never surrendered the overarching responsibility as First Secretary of the Communist Party—his renewed preeminence is proving to be calamitous for Cuba.
By eclipsing brother Raúl, Cuba’s titular president, and the many technocrats Raúl elevated last year throughout the bureaucracy, Cuba’s intransigent old lion is likely provoking serious tensions in the leadership. His actions have undermined Raúl’s legitimacy and caused lines of authority to blur, while confounding and, no doubt, demoralizing many in the nomenclatura who had hoped for significant policy changes.
Officials have watched helplessly as Raúl’s signature initiatives for promoting economic growth, engaging Cuba’s younger generations and consulting with the populace about the country’s grave problems all appear to have been scuttled by his brother. The Castros’ priorities are manifestly in conflict.
In March, Fidel took the public lead in purging two prominent younger leaders. Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage were denounced in the same kind of scathing language that has always characterized Fidel’s style of leadership. In one of his published commentaries he wrote that they had disgracefully succored ``the sweet nectar of power.’’ They had also attracted too much attention abroad as possible successors to the Castros. Lage had often been described as Cuba’s potential Gorbachev, the ambitious ``third man’’ in the leadership.
Fidel’s more-assertive role was visible in the large volume of commentaries published over his name last year. There were 111 of them, a good deal more than during the two preceding years.
Virtually everything Fidel wrote in last year’s reflections was devoted to favorite international subjects. There was much about his allies and acolytes Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales and about events in Honduras he deplored, after President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office.
On April 21 he castigated and humiliated his brother for loose talk at a meeting in Venezuela when—seemingly in an inebriated state—Raúl expressed willingness to discuss almost everything with the Obama administration. He included human rights, political prisoners and freedom of the press in Cuba as issues open to negotiation. It was an extraordinary blunder, bordering on revolutionary blasphemy, that departed from 50 years of official dogma.
For Fidel that may have been the last straw. A reflection soon appeared in the Cuban media insisting that Raúl had been misunderstood. Fidel wrote that, ``When the president of Cuba said he was ready to discuss any topic with the U.S. president, he meant he was not afraid of addressing any issue. That shows his courage and confidence in the principles of the revolution.’‘
It was necessary to emphasize again that the ideological and political workings of the Cuban state would never be subject to negotiations with Washington.
Fidel’s expanded authority, indeed his newly invigorated hubris, has also been evident in the current wave of repression that is the most brutal since the sweeping crackdown in 2003. Violence against dissidents, human-rights activists and the country’s most renowned blogger are all more characteristic of Fidel’s classic style of governing than of the somewhat more tolerant approach Raúl had followed since he first succeeded his brother in July 2006.
The arrest of an American citizen in early December and other reprisals by the regime against visitors from the United States representing religious organizations are clearly intended to ratchet up bilateral tensions. So far, however, the anti-American propaganda barrage expected of Fidel—but not necessarily of Raúl—has not occurred.
And finally, the promotion of veteran revolutionary and two-time former Minister of Interior Ramiro Valdés to one of several vice presidencies of the nominally governing Council of State signals the complete rehabilitation of a man remembered as one Cuba’s toughest and most feared hardliners.
Brian Latell is senior research associate, Cuba Studies, University of Miami and author of After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba’s Revolution.