Posted on Monday, 11.19.12
'A different and diminished Castro'
BY BRIAN LATELL
He spoke on the public record more than any political figure in history.
It is a strange and dubious distinction to be sure. But during 48 years
in power Fidel Castro elevated public discourse into a form of
narcissistic excess unlikely ever to be exceeded.
He holds the record for the longest speech ever delivered at the United
Nations. In September 1960 he droned on for four and a half hours,
excoriating Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy then in the final weeks of
their presidential campaigns. Kennedy got the worst of it; he was,
Castro seethed, "an illiterate, ignorant millionaire."
Five- and six-hour orations were standard fare during the early years of
Castro's revolution, with him often appearing in public places before
vast crowds or in broadcast studios several times in a single week. His
longest known speech lasted an astonishing 12 hours.
Always in uniform, he spoke in dozens of foreign locales — in a Viet
Cong-controlled area of South Vietnam, in the Stalinist North Korean
capital, and earlier, on a few American university campuses — as well as
nearly everywhere on the island when a small crowd could be gathered.
Anti-American tirades, harsh revolutionary incantations, and surprising
policy announcements were standard content. Yet Castro will not be
remembered for any single galvanizing performance or memorable passage
that is uniquely his own. Unlike many great orators he hoped to emulate,
nothing he ever said in public has endured as a defining rhetorical legacy.
By the time he delivered his last two official speeches —in eastern Cuba
on July 26, 2006, before requiring emergency surgery a few days later —
he had deteriorated into a frail, scarcely coherent caricature of his
earlier self. The strident voice that had uttered uncounted billions of
public words fell silent except for a few halting and pitiful
appearances on Cuban television.
Yet within a few months after provisionally retiring from the
presidency, he resorted to a new form of public communication. Signed
"reflections" that he penned, dictated, or directed staff members to
compose for him began appearing prominently in the state media. The
first of these editorials — a ponderous rumination about global food and
water shortages — appeared in March 2007.
Another 450 followed, all of them oddly disembodied and reflecting a
distinctly different and diminished Castro. In his semi-retirement he
pontificated about lofty and esoteric subjects, almost always
international in scope, while continuing to attack American "imperialism."
Characteristically, he was unpredictable. Raúl Castro, his successor,
was hardly ever mentioned by name and never complimented or
congratulated. On occasion in fact, he was the subject of veiled
criticism for the economic changes he implemented. Few other Cuban
leaders were named either. That was in contrast, however, to the
numerous accolades heaped by Fidel on Venezuelan president and Cuban
benefactor Hugo Chávez.
Yet in his new role, the author Fidel was once roused — or induced — to
intervene openly in a delicate internal political dispute. In March 2009
two of the regime's highest ranking leaders were sacked by Raúl Castro.
Foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque and vice president Carlos Lage were
ambitious protégés of the retired Fidel, both thought to be top
contenders for eventual power.
So, when Fidel flamboyantly condemned them in a published reflection —
they had been seduced "by the honey of power" he wrote — their fates
were sealed. Raúl's position was strengthened as a result and Fidel's
lingering influence highlighted. Reading the tea leaves of what Fidel
wrote, and did not, was for more than five years an obligatory task for
students of Cuba's revolution.
When the regime recently announced that Fidel had issued his last
reflection it was at least in part for reasons of health. But his
absence for the first time in nearly 60 years from the revolution's
revealed dialogue suggests that his successors have crossed an historic
Rubicon. Raúl now has a freer hand to advance needed economic reforms,
and possibly even to seek improved relations with the United States.
Thus far he has only cautiously departed from the sacred Fidelista
policies of the past, constrained by hard liners devoted to his brother
and by corruption and bureaucratic intransigence. But as Raúl speaks of
eliminating the regime's history of "paternalism, egalitarianism, and
idealism" he means Fidel's dogmatic policies that now seem likely to be
more systematically discarded. After six years at the helm, with his
hand-picked team of military and civilian leaders at his side, General
Castro can feel more secure.
So, silenced and sidelined for the second time, Fidel will likely now be
unable to decisively influence the course of Cuba's failed revolution.
With no fanfare, he will drift into the dark recesses of history.
Brian Latell is senior research associate, Cuba Studies, University of
Miami and author of Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence