Fidel’s Final Abdication
Fidel Castro’s nearly forty-nine year tenure as Cuba’s de facto and constitutional head of state and government may finally be drawing to a close. National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon told reporters in Quito in October that Castro may not “be available” to serve another five- year term as president of the Council of State.
Occupying that office since it was created in 1976 under Cuba’s new socialist constitution, Castro has served as head of state while simultaneously presiding as head of government in the role of president of the council of ministers. But to be re-elected for another five-year term he would first have to be chosen as a provincial delegate in regime-controlled elections. Last week Raul Castro issued a cursory announcement that delegates to the provincial assemblies and deputies to the national assembly will be chosen on January 20, 2008. Alarcon seems to be suggesting that Castro will not be a candidate that day, and therefore will be ineligible to continue next year as Cuba’s president.
The assembly president’s remarks stand in sharp contrast to what he has said in the past. Last March, for example, he told a wire service reporter that Castro will be “in perfect shape to run for re-election. I would nominate him. I am sure he will be in perfect shape to continue handling his responsibilities.” This suggests that between March and October Castro’s health, and perhaps his cognitive abilities, have further deteriorated. That would be consistent with rumors that he underwent another life-threatening surgery during the period. Castro has not appeared in public in sixteen months and his most recent taped television interview with a Cuban reporter several months ago revealed him in an obviously handicapped state.
A second ranking official also commented recently on Castro’s prospects. Communist Party Politburo member, Abel Prieto, who, unlike Alarcon is not an authorized or practiced commentator on the subject, suggested to an AP reporter on September 12 that Castro might decide to bow out because of his failing health. “I don’t know what he would say about the state of his health, and I think it depends a lot on that.” But Prieto added an intriguing twist. He proposed that Castro first “would have to convince the people not to be re-elected.”
A third Cuban leader, the most prestigious and influential of them all except for Raul Castro himself, has also recently provided some meaningful clues on the subject. On November 8, while representing Cuba at an Ibero-American summit in Chile, vice president Carlos Lage remarked on the role Castro currently plays in Cuban affairs. "He is working, working hard, every day more," Lage said. "I'd say he's reading, studying, analyzing, offering ideas, thoughts, giving us ideas. . ." There was not a word about Castro participating in decision making, consulting or being briefed by other officials, or preparing to reassume any such responsibilities.
Asked whether Castro would resume presidential power, Lage replied evasively. "He's already assuming tasks, perhaps the most important one a chief of state can have, which is seeding consciousness." All of this, from three of Cuba’s senior leaders, seems to indicate that Castro has assumed an emeritus role in the leadership and suggests too that by next spring or summer he will no longer be Cuba’s president, though he may be granted some new honorific title instead.
But all this begs the tantalizing question raised by Prieto: exactly how will Castro’s final, irrevocable abdication be orchestrated and explained? Prieto may have meant that, if he is able to, Castro would want to inform the Cuban people in another televised interview, or one or more of his reflections, of his decision to retire. Prieto probably does not really believe the populace is anxious for Castro to return. The reality, as he must appreciate, is quite the opposite. Anecdotal and other evidence indicates that Cubans generally, like most in the leadership class, by now have moved on, accepting –even finding genuine relief—in what is overwhelmingly viewed on the island as the eclipse of the fidelista era.
So perhaps Prieto was referring to Fidel himself. Will he willingly step aside? Is he mentally and emotionally competent to make that decision? Might his physical condition be so precarious that the exercise of any real leadership responsibilities could actually be fatal? Have his wife and children, and possibly other relatives in the huge Castro clan, weighed in urging him to withdraw? Might they, as has been rumored on the island, be counseling Raul and his closest associates to discourage Fidel from any thought of returning?
Most students of his leadership performance could never have imagined that an alive and aware Fidel Castro could voluntarily yield power. But perhaps now, after so many months out of the limelight, out of uniform and out of character, wearing a ridiculous red jogging outfit, not having been seen walking, striding, or standing in his accustomed pose before a speaker’s lectern, he has grudgingly accepted the inevitable.
Yet it may be just as likely that this titanic, narcissistic, unyielding potentate may have to have the power he has craved since the early 1950s wrenched out from under him. Only Raul Castro could do that, and at this point in his brother’s decline, and as troubles and dissatisfaction on the island multiply, the defense minister and acting president may realize that he will soon have no alternative but to do so.
Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.