Political rallies in Cuba these days end with chants of “Long Live Fidel! Long Live Raul!” but which of the Castro brothers is running the country is anyone’s guess.
Even though he has not appeared in public since emergency bowel surgery nine months ago put him at death’s door, the latest signs are that ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro has rebounded and is well enough to resume some government duties.
His die-hard supporters hope the 80-year-old “Comandante” will reappear at the May 1 workers parade in Havana’s Revolution Square, but few expect him to be strong enough to put on his uniform and deliver a rousing speech.
Photographs of Castro’s meeting with a senior Chinese Communist Party official last week showed he has regained some weight. The one-hour meeting and three recent editorial columns indicate he is back to work at least on foreign policy issues.
Formally, his lower-profile younger brother and designated successor, Raul Castro, is Cuba’s acting president and is running day-to-day government in his absence.
“By law it is Raul governing, but we never know about these things,” said saleswoman Elizabeth Centurion, who was born after Cuba’s 1959 revolution and has known only one leader.
“It looks like no one is running this place. It’s hard to understand what’s going on,” said Danilo, a mechanic mounting a Russian Lada engine in his British-built 1959 Ford Prefect.
Officials insist Fidel Castro is recovering steadily and it is only a matter of time before he again takes the helm.
Most Cuba watchers abroad say a transfer of power to Raul Castro, 75, has already taken place, with speculation centered on whether Fidel Castro will assume a role as elder statesman or return to help set and even dictate policy.
U.S. intelligence sources said this week they believe Castro’s health was most precarious last year after botched surgery for diverticulitis, or inflammation of the colon.
“The transition has basically already occurred to Raul and there’s no expectation that Fidel will come back in full control, though he definitely will be in the background participating in decision-making,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said in Washington.
Decisions on hold
Foreign businessmen and diplomats in Havana say government decision-making appears to be paralyzed at the prospect of Fidel Castro resuming full leadership of the government.
The elder Castro, known for micromanaging most aspects of Cuban society and calling ministers for information in the middle of the night, had begun re-centralizing state control over the economy in recent years.
By contrast, Raul is seen as a relaxed 9-to-5 leader who likes to govern through team work and has encouraged debate on ways to fix the shortcomings of Cuban socialism.
“I suspect not very many at the top or in the bureaucracy really want Fidel back,” said Cuban sociologist Marifeli Perez-Stable at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Fidel Castro’s return to the scene could block practical steps to keep Cubans happy, such as opening up more opportunity for self-employment, she said.
The word on Havana streets is that initial reforms under Raul Castro could include the right to buy cell phones, computers and DVDs, and to stay at tourist hotels that are out of bounds for Cubans.