Only one thing was missing when Fidel Castro's 81st birthday passed on August 13: Fidel Castro.
There was no appearance by the dictator, no snapshot or salutation from him in the official press, and little fanfare from the regime. A small fireworks show on Havana's waterfront, El Malecon, was the highlight. "The Comandante will never appear again in public," said a Cuban student to Yolanda Martinez, Cuban correspondent for Mexico's newspaper, Reforma. "He has been an imposing figure, but his role at Cuba's head is over."
The regime's succession plans seem to be operating smoothly. This student's attitude is undoubtedly the one encouraged by the regime: calm, complacent, even jaded. Fidel Castro's successors want no shocks, no expectations of genuine change, nothing to provoke any popular unrest, much less ignite an explosion. In an interview last week, Fidel Castro's own niece, Mariela, was dutifully doing her part in breaking the news gently. "The concern that we all had about losing our leader is now closer to us," she told Spanish news Agency EFE. "Fidel Castro retains great influence in Cuba through his moral authority, but the country is moving on with or without Fidel."
At the regime's Revolution Day celebrations on July 26th (again with Fidel a no-show), Raul Castro was his usual lackluster self, hinting at structural changes to improve Cubans "inadequate" salaries and inefficient food distribution. "Now we might get a little more bread and a little less circus," most Cubans probably concluded.
"Most Cubans have serenely accepted that Castro's fragile health will not take a rebound and that he will never return to an active life," Yolanda Martinez wrote in her article in Mexico's Reforma, which goes into more intriguing detail. "Sources close to his family assure us his health is extremely fragile at the moment. In the past few weeks he (Castro) has been operated on more than once to stop what appeared likely to progress to fatal septicemia. These same sources say the leader has lost much weight, that he does not want to walk or receive visitors."
"Cuban correspondents" for news agencies don't just stumble upon their assignments. Most prepare carefully and nervously for their unofficial auditions. "Castro is one hell of a guy!" roared Ted Turner to a whooping, hollering Harvard audience in 1997. "You people would like him! Most people in Cuba like him!" Within weeks CNN was granted its coveted Havana Bureau, the first ever granted by Castro to a foreign network.
Telling the truth about the Castro regime can be costly to Havana correspondents. This past March, for instance, Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Gibbs of the BBC, and César González-Calero of the Mexican newspaper El Universal were all expelled from Cuba. The regime cited these reporters' " lack of objectivity" for the hasty expulsions.
From all accounts, Yolanda Martinez remains in Cuba. Her reporting has always been characterized by an obsequiousness to the regime much more pronounced than even those mentioned above. She reportedly has sources high in the regime, probably within the Castro family. This is what makes her recent report on Castro's health interesting. Many speculate that, as in the case with Mariela's recent announcement, the regime is feeding out this information in order to further soften the imminent--though probably not imminently announced--blow.
Cuba, a country with more telephones and televisions in 1958 than half of Europe, has fewer internet connections than Uganda. On August 14th a Samizdat smuggled out of Cuba reported that these very, very few Cubans (mostly trusted journalists who work for the regime's official publications) would have their internet access further curtailed. All of their internet searches and correspondence is now re-routed through one government-monitored web portal.
Also of interest: On his recent tour of Latin America, Hugo Chavez--after insulting The U.S. as "Count Dracula!" and "a "genocidal killer!"--mentioned that Fidel Castro had advised against such insults. It is not characteristic of Hugo Chavez to publicly disobey his father figure and mentor. Was Chavez boasting that he no longer heeded the advice of an irrelevant man? Was he mocking a near cadaver and exulting in his role as the new standard-bearer of Latin American revolution? Whatever the explanation, it is clear that Fidel Castro’s days in power are behind him.