What Fidel Didn't Say

August 9, 2010

What Fidel Didn't SayAfter four years in the back seat of Cuba’s leadership, Fidel Castro appeared before Cuba’s National Assembly yesterday during an extraordinary session he convened to discuss the “imminent” nuclear war between the U.S. and Iran. Dressed in olive green fatigues, Cuba’s frail former leader delivered a short address from a specially placed podium before sitting next to Cuba’s President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon for an hour of Q&A with members of parliament. This was an opportunity for Fidel to reassure Cubans and the rest of the world that he has recovered from the ailment that led to his handing over power to his brother Raul four years ago. The most telling part of his appearance however, was what the former Cuban leader didn’t say.
Just last week, during the opening of the National Assembly’s first session, Raul Castro announced a series of economic reforms that would allow more Cubans to operate their own independent businesses and even hire other Cubans. These small reforms are part of an ongoing effort by the Raul Castro’s government to address the deep economic crisis the country is experiencing and which has plunged average Cubans into the hardest times since the end of Soviet subsidies approximately 20 years ago. While the changes have been slow in coming (Raul first hinted at economic reforms in a July 26, 2007 speech) and modest in scope, they are a clear departure from the stubborn governance of Fidel Castro who rolled back the modest reforms implemented during the Special Period because of fear of losing control.

Earlier last month, the Catholic Church in Cuba announced that Raul Castro’s government had agreed to a process for releasing 52 prisoners of conscience who remain in Cuban jails following the mass arrest of peaceful dissidents in the spring of 2003. The move was a clear response to both international pressures from the EU and the Catholic Church, and to domestic pressures from Cuba’s dissident movement. The announcement was viewed as an important step by Raul’s government and as an acknowledgement of the need to carry out reforms. While nobody accuses Raul of being a democrat or even a true reformer, his leadership of Cuba’s armed forces (which manage most of the country’s corporations) and study of western business practices help explain his more results-driven management style versus his brother’s tendency to micromanage and favor rhetoric over results.

When Fidel appeared yesterday for his first major speech in four years before Cuba’s National Assembly, his focus was entirely on foreign affairs. The topic of his talk was not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the flooding in Pakistan and China or the world economic crisis, but a supposed imminent nuclear war launched by the U.S. on Iran. In a series of questions that followed his 15-minute introductory remarks, members of the National Assembly peppered Fidel with a mix of praise and rhetorical questions followed by prolonged applause and only the occasional shot of Raul clapping in support of his ailing brother. At no point during the extraordinary session that gathered almost all of Cuba’s government leaders was there any discussion of domestic issues, the focus of most Cubans’ worries. It is no surprise than that many Cubans chose instead to go about their daily lives, ignoring the speech and pretending that their four-year break free from Fidel’s long, incoherent ramblings continues.

However, the most interesting part of Fidel’s speech was not what he said rather what he didn’t say. By focusing entirely on foreign affairs and ignoring domestic issues, Fidel appears to be sending a signal that his brother Raul is in charge of Cuba’s government and calling the shots, while he is content with continuing to comment on “relevant” issues as he has been doing in his “Reflexiones.” Had Fidel wanted to derail Raul’s efforts to implement economic reforms or decrease domestic and international tensions by releasing 52 dissidents, he could have easily done so. Instead, Fidel made no mention of the reforms or of the dissidents, in what could even be interpreted as him having signed off on these decisions.

While only time will tell whether Fidel can suppress the urge to micromanage every aspect of Cuba’s government as his did for 47 years, his speech Saturday gives reasons to be cautiously optimistic. An interview he granted four Venezuelan journalists on Sunday also focused on foreign affairs and not domestic issues, another reason to be optimistic. However, as his health improves and Raul Castro’s government undertakes more controversial reforms, the chances that we will see a glimpse of the old Fidel, the micromanager-in-chief, will increase, though we may never nee the old Fidel again. In the meantime, every article he writes or speech he gives in which he doesn’t mention domestic affairs or the day-to-day management of the government will be good news for those of us who would like to faster and more substantive reforms in Cuba.



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