CUBA | CASTRO'S TRANSFORMATION
Power symbols emerge from Fidel Castro's closet
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
It was just a small silver metal star on a military cap.
But, worn by Fidel Castro during a speech Sept. 28, it showed the former
Cuban leader again taking up the symbols of his old power as the
undisputed leader of the island's revolution.
The star was the latest tweak in Castro's sartorial evolution, from
post-surgery pajamas in 2006 to track suits from 2007 to 2009, then
casual sports clothes and now military garb for the past 10 weeks.
Miami radio commentator Max Lesnick, who chatted with Castro in Havana
last month, said he believed the star was merely a symbolic
representation of the 84-year-old's revolutionary legacy.
``The star is to remind people of that classic image, of what he's
always been -- a revolutionary,'' Lesnick said. ``It symbolizes that
he's still comandante en jefe of the revolution, a historic rank.''
Added James Cason, former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana:
``Everything he does is thought out. Maybe he's just saying, `As we old
guys are falling away, don't forget the revolution.' ''
Camilo Loret de Mola, a Cuban lawyer now living in Miami, agreed the
silver star harks back to Castro's revolution against Fulgencio Batista,
when it signaled the rebels' highest rank of comandante.
But Castro's use of the star these days is a sign that he remains
steadfast in his beliefs, Loret de Mola said, even as brother and
successor Raúl Castro makes changes to Cuba's communist system.
``It's a return to the roots of the revolution, a declaration that `I am
again what I was at the beginning,' '' he added. ``While everybody is
talking about change, change, change, he says, `I don't change.' ''
Loret de Mola noted that the metal star on a cap is not currently used
by the Cuban armed forces or Interior Ministry. A yellow cloth star,
usually on epaulets, denotes the rank of major.
The evolution of Castro's attire has long drawn the attention of
Cuba-watchers over his nearly five decades in power and is studied as a
reflection of his shifts in political and economic affairs.
In the early 1960s, right after his band of rebels ousted Batista, he
favored the olive green military fatigues of his guerrilla movement. As
he settled into power in the 1970s and 1980s, Castro favored more formal
uniforms in the style of his Soviet bloc allies.
After the Berlin Wall collapsed and Cuba was forced to let in foreign
investments and tourists, Castro occasionally turned to business suits
or guayaberas, the shirt that is Cuba's national apparel.
But his wardrobe changed significantly, and was even more closely
watched, after he underwent emergency surgery in 2006 and turned over
his powers to brother Raúl -- at first temporarily and then officially
A month after the surgery, photos of a meeting with visiting Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez showed Castro wearing red pajamas -- a man clearly
just recuperating from a serious surgery.
From April 2007 to September 2009, photos of Castro repeatedly showed
him wearing track suits in the colors of the Cuban flag.
The suits were taken as signals that he was still rehabilitating from
the surgery, and sparked suspicions that they hid a colostomy bag.
Castro then shifted to casual clothes in what analysts took as a signal
that he was done with rehab and ready to return to public life -- a
hunch that proved prophetic.
He was shown in photos and videos wearing brightly colored shirts that
could have come straight out of a J.Crew catalog and appeared healthier
than in all previous images.
Castro still wore casual clothes when he made his first real public
appearance since 2006 -- at a Havana scientific think tank on July 7 of
this year, the same day Raúl agreed to free 52 political prisoners.
But he raised eyebrows on July 25, when he wore a military-style tunic
in olive green on the eve of the anniversary of the 1953 attack on the
Moncada Barracks, marked as the start of Castro's revolution, as he paid
homage to the rebels killed in the attack.
That garb sparked conjectures that he was signaling either his
endorsement -- or perhaps opposition -- to the economic reforms that
Raúl Castro had been promising since 2007, but had not yet enacted.
Castro wore the tunic again later during several ceremonies but then
added olive green pants, his first full military ensemble since 2006,
during a Sept. 3 outdoor speech at the University of Havana.
His change from civilian garb to military uniforms ``demonstrates his
narcissist impulse to stay relevant, while entertaining the impression
that he's still in charge,'' said Armando Mastrapa, who runs a website
on the Cuban military.
But Castro did not wear any signs of military rank until a Sept. 28
speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of
the Revolution, neighborhood watch groups run by the government.
That's when he debuted that single star on his cap, though still no
signs of rank on his epaulets.
The recent publication of Castro's memoirs of the fight against Batista,
Mastrapa said, ``has probably caused revolutionary nostalgia'' and led
him to ``don a defining emblematic rank of yesteryear.''