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Ailing Castro turns to power of the pen

In six months, he has written 45 reflections on the state of the world, hinting at his receding role as Cuba moves toward economic change.

September 16, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Cuban leader Fidel Castro hasn't been seen in public for nearly 14 months, but he's certainly been heard from.

The ailing revolutionary has written 45 "Reflections of the Commander in Chief" in the last six months, pontificating on the state of the world, cataloging a lifetime of anti-U.S. sentiment, and providing proof every few days that he's still alive and full of opinions.

The reflexiones that have appeared in the Communist Party daily Granma (and read in their verbose entirety on state-run TV) suggest that he's spent at least some of his convalescence thinking about his legacy.

But they also hint at the erstwhile strongman's receding role in steering a Cuban populace that has moved on from his hard-line views on the virtues of sacrifice and austerity.

Castro's writings have been unwaveringly against the kind of economic tinkering that led to limited private enterprise in the early 1990s and to joint ventures with foreign hotel and tourism operators that have added $2 billion a year to the regime's coffers.

Castro, 81, lambasted recent suggestions by foreign economists that Cuba allow more private enterprise, calling them "pure poison." But provisional President Raul Castro, his 76-year-old brother and successor, has been talking about the need for major "structural change" to improve living standards.

Cuba-watchers see the message disparities as indications that a post-Fidel leadership is already at work on the monumental task of transforming an economy hamstrung by inept central planning, corruption and the widespread pilferage and work-shirking that Communist Party officials refer to as "inefficiencies."

Castro's writings have served to make clear his objection to any market-oriented changes or encouragement of private initiatives like those that have transformed China into the fastest-growing economy in the world.

"It certainly reiterates his position . . . making distinct a very live sector against reforms," Phil Peters, chief Cuba scholar at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said of Castro's reflections. "But there are other lines of opinion now coming out on the Internet, in Raul's speeches, in which he's made very clear the need for structural changes."

Castro's reflections have touched on issues such as global warming, European defense spending, exultation for Cuban athletes' success at the Pan American Games and denunciations of CIA plots to kill him. One refelection rates the U.S. presidents he has sparred with (all bad except Jimmy Carter). Another is a reflection on the reflections themselves.

"When taking on this task, I had no previously elaborated plan, but rather a deeply felt desire to communicate with our people, the main protagonist of our resistance, as I observe the stupid actions of the empire," Castro wrote in late June, alluding to the United States as the instigator of his reflections. "I am filled with an immense desire to study and meditate while recovering."

Analysts say the writings show Castro has retired from active leadership, taking on an eminence grise role as he convalesces from gastrointestinal ailments deemed a state secret.

"I see him as a kind of professor emeritus giving these synoptic lectures to an adoring classroom," said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a leftist think tank in Washington. "In his declining years, he has become the educator not only of the nation but of the hemisphere."

He compared Castro's musings to opinion pieces that appear in major U.S. newspapers, with the exception that "Granma has to run them."

Distinctions between Raul Castro's public expressions and those of his apparently retired elder brother reflect that "Raul is an operational figure," the leader of the here and now, said Birns, while Fidel Castro waxes globally and historically.

"This is part of his legacy to the nation," Birns said of Castro's reflections, issuing from the ailing leader like a memoir in sporadic installments. "Surely he has in mind his own mortality."

With the exception of a piece last week suggesting that the Bush administration lied about the true perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks -- an accusation Birns described as embarrassing and "loony" -- most of the writings have addressed issues of interest throughout Latin America and the Third World.

"By writing these op-eds, it allows him to have a voice on international issues and serves as a reminder to the Cuban people that he's still alive. They serve a dual function," said Dan Erikson, Caribbean analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "To some degree they seem an effort to transform Fidel Castro from a managerial leader in Cuba to a voice of wisdom, although you can certainly argue with that wisdom."

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