El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building in Havana, Dec. 2014.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
By Karl Vick / Havana
January 27, 2015

The letter from Fidel Castro that surfaced on the front page of the state newspaper Granma on Tuesday served two purposes. The first was proof of life. When you’re the founder of a state and your physical condition is subject to almost constant rumor, you don’t arrange to be photographed holding up a copy of a current newspaper to prove that you remain alive. You remark on events that have recently transpired, and make that front page your own.

Which was of course the other thing the senior Castro, 88, accomplished: leaving his mark — however belatedly, guardedly and obtusely — on events that have largely been out of his hands since he handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2006, owing to failing health. Tuesday’s remarks were Fidel’s first since the momentous simultaneous declaration on Dec. 19 by Raúl and President Barack Obama that Cuba and the U.S. would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations, and work together toward removing the more than 50-year-old American economic embargo.

In the meantime a senior State Department delegation had already come to Havana on Jan. 21 and left amid smiles and mutual avowals of continuing the rapprochement. In his public letter Fidel was less effusive, but made it clear that he wouldn’t stand in the way of new diplomatic ties. “I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts,” Castro wrote, in remarks addressed in his name to a student federation at the University of Havana. “We shall always defend the cooperation and friendship between all people, among them our political adversaries,” the letter went on. “With this spirit, I have fought and will continue fighting until my last breath.”

The tones of skepticism, even amid the outpouring of enthusiasm with which ordinary Cubans received word of the rapprochement, shouldn’t be surprising. After reaching out in vain to the Eisenhower Administration after Fidel and his fellow rebels ousted the U.S.-backed Cuban government in 1959, no leader faced more persistent efforts by the U.S. to remove him and undo his revolution. There were direct military attacks, planned assassinations and a long string of assaults by U.S.-backed surrogates spanning more than a decade. Castro’s resilience and increasingly proud defiance of Washington gave him unique standing on the world stage — and made him ever more reviled by the Cuban exiles in the U.S. who loathed his socialist system and often brutal repression of dissidents and rivals.

Today there’s no disputing who is in charge in Cuba. Nearly a decade after taking power, Raúl has brought in his own people, and gradually but steadily pushed for pragmatic changes that have eased the economic hardships that defined Cuban life in the years after the Soviet Union abruptly withdrew its wholesale support at the end of the Cold War. Fidel said as much in his statement, noting that as President, the 83-year-old Raúl “has taken the pertinent steps in accordance with his prerogatives and the powers given to him by the National Assembly the Communist Party of Cuba.” But opening to market forces also threatens the system of social equality that was a hallmark of the Castro regime — a risk that likely accounts for much of the wariness evident in Fidel’s missive.

Fidel, who hasn’t spoken in public in years, is clearly not well. He remains at home on his ranch on the western outskirts of the capital, his health widely believed to be fragile at best. After a flurry of rumors a fortnight ago that he had suffered a fatal stroke, he sent a letter to the soccer legend Diego Maradona, an old friend, saying he was very much alive. (The confusion was due in part to the very real death earlier this month of Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of Kenya’s opposition leader.) But as the embodiment of the Revolution, the Bearded One retains the power of paterfamilias status, and perhaps a good deal more, among ordinary Cubans.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in my government,” said Caridad Alfonso, 43, at a beer garden along the shore after finishing her day as a general practitioner in Havana. “We are Fidelistas. We love Fidel even though he’s not the President any more and we follow Raúl.”

But she welcomed the opening to the U.S., especially as framed by both Raúl and Obama and their diplomats, who make frequent mentions of mutual respect and sovereignty, as well as “profound disagreements.”

“Now we’re equal,” Alfonso said. “It’s a good beginning.” And Fidel Castro may be around to see the end as well.

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