The Castro brothers’ relationship has probably never been more indecipherable than it has been in recent months. Since 1959 Fidel and Raul have been mutually dependent partners in the Cuban revolutionary experience. Neither could have survived this long—or for very long at all—without the other’s protection and counsel.
They have complemented each other in essential ways: Fidel—mercurial, idiosyncratic, disorganized, and charismatic; Raul—methodical, practical, collegial and dull. They are perfectly matched halves of a governing partnership that is unprecedented in modern times for its durability, and remarkable for the mysteries of its inner workings.
The core traits they share—ruthlessness, temerity, and cunning—have guaranteed that these otherwise very different brothers have survived in power together for more than a half century. It has not been an easy alliance, however. Strong willed and stubborn, each with loyal entourages, they have often clashed. Their disagreements have most often been about the methods and timing for implementing policies about which they agree. But at other times—apparently as now—they are strongly at odds over revolutionary doctrine and strategy.
Raul historically deferred to his brother. But four years ago they switched roles when Fidel yielded center stage because of age and infirmity. Now, the balance of power between them may be shifting again. Fidel’s recent numerous public appearances—walk-abouts, conversations, televised discourses, glad-handing with carefully selected sycophants, a burst of media hype for a new book—have ignited speculation that he wants to reclaim the presidency.
He is manifestly healthier and stronger. In a recent published commentary he wrote in the past tense of his “serious illness.” And, Cuba’s first vice president, the keynote speaker at the national July 26th observance, spoke of Fidel’s “successful health recovery.”
Other straws have also been in the wind, suggesting Fidel is no longer content to play the passive part of back stage convalescent. He is wearing olive green again and has repeatedly been referred to in the official media as the “commander-in-chief,” even though according to Cuba’s Marxist constitution, that title is reserved for Raul, the country’s president.
Another straw is indicative of Fidel’s reemergence in the policy sphere. On July 26 he mentioned his intent to “call for a special session of the national assembly” to discuss the “important matters” that have been obsessing him this summer. They are all oddly dissonant and apocalyptic: his fear of nuclear war originating in the Middle East or the Korean peninsula, or both. “Everything hangs by a thread,” he wrote on July 11, and a week later mused about the “imminent risk of war.” Ten of his “reflections” since June 1 have dwelled on such dark scenarios.
It is highly unlikely, however, that Raul and the management team he has formed around him have any desire to put such issues before the national assembly. Their priorities are domestic and economic. They appreciate how desperate the Cuban condition is today and have been making tough decisions aimed at jump starting the economy. So, Fidel’s call for a special assembly session will now loom as a bellwether of the relative power between him and his brother.
Yet, two things do seem clear. The volume and consistency of Fidel’s anti-American tirades in June and July underline his adamant opposition to any improvement of relations with Washington. He has been venomously, even irrationally anti-American, more so than any time in recent memory.
He alleged that the United States was responsible for the sinking last March of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel. He claimed that the Reagan administration supplied apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons, via Israel, and that Cuba itself was close to nuclear extinction during the 1962 missile crisis. These are themes that Raul and mainstream Cuban media have essentially ignored.
And, Fidel’s new visibility is also meant to promote and protect his legacy. He, along with some family members and hard-line fidelista allies, probably have concluded that many of Raul’s recent initiatives have undermined Fidel’s historic legitimacy. All of the limited reforms of the last two years have been designed, after all, to rectify the grievous economic problems that Fidel bequeathed his successors.
The grim diagnosis of Cuba’s dysfunction that Raul laid out in a major speech last April must have deeply antagonized Fidel and his associates. Raul’s unprecedented negotiations with the Catholic Church, his decision to release a number of political prisoners, and hints that all of the prisoners may be released also seem to indict Cuba’s predecessor regime in ways that must be intolerable for the narcissistic Fidel.
He stands by the status quo. On June 24 he wrote that “most revolutionary dreams are coming true and our homeland is firmly on the path to recovery.” Raul is saying nothing of the sort.