BBC News
25 May, 2002

Castro-watch gives clues on Cuba

              The two sides of Fidel: Soldier and statesman

              By Daniel Schweimler
              BBC correspondent in Havana

              When you've had the same leader for 43 years, you'll feel you know him fairly well, even if
              you've never met him personally.

              Most Cubans have grown up with Fidel Castro, from the firebrand revolutionary to the
              president pitting his small country against the mighty Western world, to the somewhat
              grandfatherly figure now trying to protect the gains he feels he's made during his time in

              His presence is everywhere in Cuba, but he remains an enigma and his people
              watch his every move for signs of what he's really thinking.

              There are no statues to President Castro in Cuba.

              That honour is reserved for heroes of the country's struggle for independence from
              Spain such as Jose Marti, or for the Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara
              who fought alongside Fidel.

              However, there are portraits of the bearded leader in all schools and most workplaces, his
              picture appears frequently in the country's two state-run newspapers and his long, long
              speeches are broadcast live, then often repeated, on state-run television and radio.

              The fact is, there is no escaping Fidel.

              You don't even need to mention his name in conversation.

              A simple brush of the chin is enough to indicate that you're talking about HIM.

              But despite his omnipresence, few can really claim to know the man who has
              governed them for those 43 years.

              Diplomats and foreign journalists, who have read the numerous biographies about the
              Cuban leader, find themselves confused and sometimes flabbergasted by his actions.

              He's the first topic of conversation at any diplomatic gathering.

              "What did he mean by storming out of that UN summit in Monterrey a few weeks ago?"

              "Why does he seem to go out of his way to pick a fight with the Mexican president?"

              "Why invite former US President Jimmy Carter to Cuba to speak with dissidents?"

              All such questions usually result in an agreement to wait and see.

              The Jimmy Carter visit was a good opportunity  for those wanting to watch Fidel.

              From suit to uniform

              Firstly, he met his guest at the airport wearing a dark suit and tie - not his customary military

              A sign, most agreed, that he wanted to be friendly.

              And that proved to be the case as he twicedined with Mr Carter, accompanied him to a
              game of baseball and allowed him to openly criticise the Cuban system live on national
              television and radio.

              Mr Carter's call for greater civil liberties was the first time that anyone had spoken so
              openly in front of the comandante en jefe, the commander in chief, probably since he came to
              power in 1959.

              And as Jimmy Carter spoke, my eyes, like those of most of the others in the main hall at
              Havana University, automatically turned to look at Fidel.

              Not a twitch, not a sign of emotion.

              But when he saw Mr Carter off at the airport a few days later, he was again
              wearing his green uniform.

              And sure enough, the he sees as the bullying tactics by Washington and the Cuban exile
              community in Miami followed shortly afterwards.

              If Fidel is not seen in public for a few days, the rumours soon start circulating.

              He's on his deathbed, he's having plastic surgery in Venezuela, he's gone fishing.

              Many of these rumours start in Miami, where the vehemently anti-Castro Cuban exiles
              watch for any tiny chink in the Cuban leader's armour that might allow them to undermine his

              The rumours seep into Cuba via conversations with relatives still on the island or the Cuban
              exile radio station, Radio Marti, when the Cuban authorities can't block it.

              The judgement of those Cuba calls the terrorist mafia in Miami is tainted by a
              deep-seated hatred of Fidel and wishful thinking.

              But keeping everyone, including his own people, guessing has proved to be one of
              President Castro's strongest tools in keeping his government in power for 43 years.

              Birth of a legend

              The most well-known case of someone badly misreading Fidel came back in the 1950s when
              he was still in the mountains of eastern Cuba trying to overthrown the Batista regime.

              The New York Times reporter, Herbert Matthews, trekked up there to meet him and
              later wrote that the Cuban revolutionary appeared invincible, commanding a well-armed
              and highly motivated band of fighters.

              It later became known that at the time Fidel had no more than 20 soldiers with him, some of
              who had marched backwards and forwards during the interview to create the impression
              that they were more than they were.

              But the legend had been born.

              Little is even known about his private life.

              A Spanish newspaper earlier this year for the first time published photographs and named his
              partner and the mother of five of his children, Delia Soto.

              Nothing was reproduced in the Cuban media.

              Up close and personal

              I've stood close to Fidel several times and watched rather than listened to him speak.

              He sometimes loses his place in his script which the next day is interpreted as the first
              signs of senility.

              His hands sometimes shake.

              His voice, when not amplified by microphones, is often not much more than a hoarse whisper
              - probably the result of so many long speeches.

              But he looks to me as fit as any 75-year-old I've seen.

              Only I've read reports the following day by journalists standing next to me who said he
              appeared tired or ill.

              Cuba can do that you - the same words can be read very differently by different people.

              For the foreigners it's a game. For the Cubans, who have limited access to information,
              watching Fidel, noting who he's standing next  to, who he shakes hands with, has become an
              art form.

              Washington it seems has toughened its policy  towards Cuba.

              And as Fidel ages, it seems inevitable that those who watch him, whether from
              Washington, Miami or inside Cuba, will scrutinise his actions with even greater
              vigilance, trying to find some indication of what Fidel Castro is thinking or what he may
              do next.