Castro turns to power of the pen
In six months, he has written 45 reflections, hinting at his receding role as Cuba moves toward economic change.
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
MIAMI — -- Cuban leader Fidel Castro hasn't been seen in public for nearly 14 months, but he's certainly been heard from.
The ailing revolutionary has written 45 "Reflections of the Commander in Chief" in the last six months, pontificating on the state of the world, cataloging a lifetime of anti-U.S. sentiment, and providing proof every few days that he's still alive and full of opinions.
The reflexiones that have appeared in the Communist Party daily Granma (and read in their verbose entirety on state-run TV) suggest that he's spent at least some of his convalescence thinking about his legacy.
But they also hint at the erstwhile strongman's receding role in steering a Cuban populace that has moved on from his hard-line views on the virtues of sacrifice and austerity.
Castro's writings have been unwaveringly against the kind of economic tinkering that led to limited private enterprise in the early 1990s and to joint ventures with foreign hotel and tourism operators that have added $2 billion a year to the regime's coffers.
Castro, 81, lambasted recent suggestions by foreign economists that Cuba allow more private enterprise, calling them "pure poison." But provisional President Raul Castro, his 76-year-old brother and successor, has been talking about the need for major "structural change" to improve living standards.
Cuba-watchers see the message disparities as indications that a post-Fidel leadership is already at work on the monumental task of transforming an economy hamstrung by inept central planning, corruption and the widespread pilferage and work-shirking that Communist Party officials refer to as "inefficiencies."
Castro's writings have served to make clear his objection to any market-oriented changes or encouragement of private initiatives like those that have transformed China into the fastest-growing economy in the world.
"It certainly reiterates his position . . . making distinct a very live sector against reforms," Phil Peters, chief Cuba scholar at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said of Castro's reflections. "But there are other lines of opinion now coming out on the Internet, in Raul's speeches, in which he's made very clear the need for structural changes."
Castro's reflections have touched on issues such as global warming, European defense spending, exultation for Cuban athletes' success at the Pan American Games and denunciations of CIA plots to kill him. One refelection rates the U.S. presidents he has sparred with (all bad except Jimmy Carter). Another is a reflection on the reflections themselves.
"When taking on this task, I had no previously elaborated plan, but rather a deeply felt desire to communicate with our people, the main protagonist of our resistance, as I observe the stupid actions of the empire," Castro wrote in late June, alluding to the United States as the instigator of his reflections. "I am filled with an immense desire to study and meditate while recovering."
Analysts say the writings show Castro has retired from active leadership, taking on an eminence grise role as he convalesces from gastrointestinal ailments deemed a state secret.
"I see him as a kind of professor emeritus giving these synoptic lectures to an adoring classroom," said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a leftist think tank in Washington. "In his declining years, he has become the educator not only of the nation but of the hemisphere."
He compared Castro's musings to opinion pieces that appear in major U.S. newspapers, with the exception that "Granma has to run them."
Distinctions between Raul Castro's public expressions and those of his apparently retired elder brother reflect that "Raul is an operational figure," the leader of the here and now, said Birns, while Fidel Castro waxes globally and historically.
"This is part of his legacy to the nation," Birns said of Castro's reflections, issuing from the ailing leader like a memoir in sporadic installments. "Surely he has in mind his own mortality."
With the exception of a piece last week suggesting that the Bush administration lied about the true perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks -- an accusation Birns described as embarrassing and "loony" -- most of the writings have addressed issues of interest throughout Latin America and the Third World.
"By writing these op-eds, it allows him to have a voice on international issues and serves as a reminder to the Cuban people that he's still alive. They serve a dual function," said Dan Erikson, Caribbean analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "To some degree they seem an effort to transform Fidel Castro from a managerial leader in Cuba to a voice of wisdom, although you can certainly argue with that wisdom."
Like other Cuba-watchers, Erikson speculated that some of the opinions may have been ghost-written by other Communist Party officials during Castro's reported health setbacks. In the spring, when the series began, the articles seemed more organized and focused on a central theme, but more recent pieces have been in "the very digressive style of his speech-making," Erikson said.
Castro's more bizarre observations of late, the 9/11 coverup claim and the contention in his most recent column that he personally disrupted an assassination plot against President Reagan in 1984, have been attributed by the analysts to a potentially wandering mind and the reluctance of cowering aides to advise him against statements that put his lucidity in doubt.
"My own guess is that he is partly senile, or whatever word you want to use to mean too incoherent to make a speech," Jaime Suchlicki, head of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said of the famous orator's new preference for writing. He suspects Castro has been working with his personal secretary and trusted ideological confidant, Carlos Valenciaga, in drafting the reflections.
Suchlicki puts little stock in the Castro brothers' divergent messages on the outlook for reform, even once the elder Castro dies.
"Raul cannot reject Fidel's legacy immediately, even if he wanted to. It would be difficult for people to get up and say, 'Fidel was wrong -- we need a Chinese model,' " he said.
"The first few years are going to be a cult of personality around Fidel, a celebration of his legacy. Then later on things may begin to change."