Castro's Fainting Spell Shatters Taboos
By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA—Down on Havana's seafront Malecon boulevard, where Cubans gather
on the wall to enjoy the breeze and watch the world go by, the talk is
everyday matters like fishing, the price of beans, or baseball.
But something changed in Cuba at 11:22 a.m. on Saturday June 23, and
since then the Malecon, like other favorite gossip spots around the Caribbean
been abuzz with more weighty topics of conversation.
That was the moment President Fidel Castro, who for 42 years has maintained
an image of invincibility in front of his own people, briefly collapsed
from heat and
exhaustion in front of 70,000 supporters and millions of television viewers.
Although Castro was resuscitated in an ambulance and was back on his
feet within seven minutes, the incident shocked the nation, emphasized
his human mortality,
and broke taboos over open discussion of the future of Cuba after "El Comandante".
The two big talking points that Cubans were often hesitant to discuss
openly before June 23 are how long the 74-year-old Castro will remain in
power and who will
replace him, both in the short- and medium-term, once he goes.
"He still looks strong to me, but who knows? At that age, anything can
happen. ... After the fainting, it really hit us that he won't live forever,"
said Joel, a fisherman,
casting his line into the glass-still water on a hot Sunday morning.
"There was a lot of anxiety, and even panic, in our street when we saw
him falling on television, because the camera changed and we didn't know
happening," said teenager Antonio, out for a stroll with his girlfriend. "People were relieved when he came back, but everyone's talking about what will happen next
time this happens, and it's more serious."
The politically savvy Castro, probably embarrassed by all the international
and domestic fuss over what was his first failure ever to finish a public
speech or act, has
typically sought to wrest the initiative from the situation.
Within minutes of slumping over, he reappeared in front of the crowd
to reassure them he was "fine" and, despite promising to be more "prudent"
in the future, he was
again leading an anti-U.S. rally of 40,000 people less than a week later.
After that demonstration, Castro held a lengthy chat with journalists
in which he gave some of his most candid reflections to date about his
mortality and the future of
the Communist society he will bequeath to Cuba.
Although proclaiming his health "better than ever," he also commented
with an eye to the future: "I ask the people to forgive me, the day something
happens to me, for
the passing displeasure it might cause."
He gave the strongest nod to date to his brother Raul, head of Cuba's
armed forces and No. 2 in the political hierarchy, as his successor. "If
they tell me tomorrow
morning, you're having a heart attack, a sudden death, or if I have an accident ... and I go to sleep for eternity, Raul is the one with most authority and experience."
Theories on Cuba's future after Castro may be manifold -- ranging from
predictions of civil strife to assurances the ruling Communist Party will
ensure a smooth
transition and anything in-between—but most tend to agree Raul Castro, 70, will figure prominently in the immediate post-Fidel scenario.
While he lacks his older brother's crowd-pulling charisma, he has a
strong power base in the military, impeccable revolutionary credentials
since he fought with his
brother to bring about the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and, now, the authority that comes with public endorsement by the "Maximum Leader."
Many analysts think Raul Castro would be likely to co-opt some of today's
senior officials, possibly in a shared leadership that might consider gentle
reforms to the
one-party political system and state-run economy once the dust settles.
They include Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 36, a former student
leader and personal aide to Fidel Castro who impressed many by the way
he took the
microphone and calmed the crowd after his boss collapsed.
Also in contention would be National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon,
64, a seasoned leader who is Castro's unofficial pointman on U.S. affairs,
President Carlos Lage, 49, considered the architect of Cuba's economic policy.
"It's not just Raul," Fidel Castro emphasized in his chat with journalists.
"There is a plethora of new young talent in our country because one of
the characteristics of
the Revolution is to have promoted a whole new generation of young people and cadres."
In a country where analysts watch closely for any revealing sign within
the closed political hierarchy, many attached significance to Perez' appearance
in front of the
masses at a time when, for all the world knew during those long seven minutes, Castro might have been dying from a heart attack.
A detail observers particularly fixed on was that Perez and Lage consulted
on stage before they decided the former would take the microphone. Then,
at the end of
his brief speech, and presumably not knowing what was going on in the ambulance behind him, Perez led the crowd in a cry of "Long live Raul!" before the usual
"Long live Fidel!"
Whatever significance that may or may not hold, what does seem clear
is that the image of Castro suffering on stage in the line of public duty
has struck a nerve for
many Cubans. As well as shocking them into thinking about the future, it also seems to have produced a relative wave of sympathy, even from those who are eager to
see political and economic reforms.
"We have to thank Saturday's suffocating heat for giving us the opportunity
to demonstrate how much we care for Fidel," the Juventud Rebelde (Rebel
proclaimed the next day in a comment that seemed deeper than just the usual propaganda.
Despite that, there were a few unconfirmed whispers around Havana of
some people cheering in premature celebration when they saw Castro's collapse.
Cubans say, in an apparent paradox, that while they will feel emotional at Castro's departure, they will also welcome the start of a new era.
Abroad, Castro's foes, principally among the fiercely anti-Communist
Cuban-American community, seized on the incident as a sign the end of their
long wait may be
nigh. "Bad health for Fidel Castro is good news for freedom lovers everywhere," U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said.
Most of the rumors over Castro's health in recent times -- including
unconfirmed reports that he may have cancer, brain disease, Parkinson's
and a host of other
life-threatening ailments—have come from Florida.
With a veil of secrecy over details of his health here, it is impossible
to know how he is beyond a general impression. While he has sometimes lost
his place or looked
tired during lengthy speeches, Castro had generally seemed in good health of late, and many have noted that plenty of younger participants fainted in the heat of the
June 23 rally before he did.
Back on the five-mile sweep down the decaying but still picturesque
Malecon, an early morning road-sweeper, Luis, picked up a tatty Cuban flag
left over from a
recent protest rally opposite the U.S. diplomatic mission.
"Look, I'm in my 60s, I've worked all my life, I love my country, don't
misunderstand me," he said. "But we've tried to stop the clock here in
Cuba and the world has
gone marching on without us. Change is inevitable. Let's just hope it's quiet and peaceful, not violent, for God's sake."