Castro Withdraws From Public To Write Memoirs

Cuba's Fidel Castro is often taken for dead if he goes too long without a public appearance. His most recent lengthy absence led to another round of rumors on Twitter that he had died. But it turns out the 85-year-old former revolutionary leader hasn't been ill; he's been working on his memoirs.

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Fidel Castro is often taken for dead if he goes too long without a public appearance in Cuba. His most recent absence led to another round of Castro death rumors. But it turns out, the 85-year-old Castro has not been ill. He's been working on his memoirs.

Nick Miroff tells us more from Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: The late Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin once painted Fidel Castro as Don Quixote, and in old age, Castro's life increasingly seems to imitate art. With his wispy white beard, gaunt frame and huge, bony hands, he looks and speaks like the obsessive Spanish gentleman whose idealism eventually gave way to a sinking sense of gloom.

FIDEL CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Here's Castro speaking on Cuban State Television recently to a room full of adoring global activists and intellectuals, about the two worries that now seem to consume him: nuclear weapons and the threat of climate change. His public appearances are the first since last April.

CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: All it would take is a suicide attack by an airplane crashing into a nuclear reactor to produce a disaster worse than Chernobyl, Castro said. There are no protections.

Castro often shares these grim warnings and others in columns known as "Reflections" that are reprinted in Cuban state newspapers and read verbatim on government newscasts.

A life-threatening illness forced him to step aside in 2006 after 47 years in power, exchanging his trademark military fatigues for the baggy track suits and plaid shirts he wears today. He walks with difficulty now, but his legendary verbosity is undiminished. The meeting with the activists and intellectuals lasted nine hours, so long it had to be serialized on State Television the following week.

ORLANDO LUIS PARDO LAZO: After living all my life listening to that voice, maybe I remember better his voice in my childhood than my own mother's voice. Because my mother definitely has changed.

MIROFF: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is a blogger and dissident activist in Havana, who says Castro sounded like he's actually getting younger.

LAZO: Fidel, somehow, you have the impression that he's the same Fidel. He was the same in the '70s, in the '80s, in the '90s, and at some point, I was afraid he's not growing old at all. We're all going to die before Fidel. We're not going to see anything different. The system is really immortal, as the slogan says.

MIROFF: Castro won't live forever, but he apparently has more to say before he goes. His new, two-volume, thousand-page memoir only covers the period of his life up to 1959, when his Cuban Revolution overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Based on oral-history-style interviews with a Cuban journalist, it covers his childhood and rise from student activist to against-all-odds insurgent leader.

You won't find the book on Amazon, and only a limited number of copies have been released so far on the island. But there are few living world figures who have had Castro's front-row seat to history.

Aurelio Alonso is the deputy editor of Cuba's "Casa de las Americas" journal.

AURELIO ALONSO: I think he has decided (unintelligible) that he had to do himself his memories. Has to write. Because he's too old that he's doing nothing else. He is not any more the chief of state. He's a thinker. Now he's going to think and to write and to leave for during generation his experience.

MIROFF: There's one anecdote that stands out from the second volume of Castro's "Guerrillero del Tiempo," or "Warrior Across Time." In the summer of 1952, Castro was a struggling young lawyer living in a cramped apartment with a wife and child to support. He was so broke one day that he couldn't buy a cup of coffee, and a once-friendly cafe owner cut off his credit. So he wandered Havana's streets with nothing to do, stopping at a newsstand to browse a magazine. Move along, the owner told him, shooing him down the sidewalk. Castro was 25 then. At 32, he'd be running the entire island.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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