Fidel Castro speaks during a special session of Cuba's parliament Saturday in Havana. The former Cuban leader, who turns 84 on Friday, is making near daily appearances in and around Havana — four years after health problems forced him to cede power to his younger brother Raul.
Fidel Castro speaks during a special session of Cuba's parliament Saturday in Havana. The former Cuban leader, who turns 84 on Friday, is making near daily appearances in and around Havana — four years after health problems forced him to cede power to his younger brother Raul. Javier Galeano/AP
It's been nearly four years since Cuba's Fidel Castro turned over the island's leadership to his younger brother Raul and withdrew from public view after undergoing emergency surgery.
Now he's back, making almost daily appearances on Cuban TV, and still throwing political curveballs.
Castro, who turns 84 on Friday, is certain that U.S. and Israeli tensions with Iran are driving the world toward nuclear war. He wants everyone to know it, so he has been talking about the subject all over town, even during a recent visit to the Havana aquarium.
Over the weekend, he convened a special session of Cuba's parliament, urging President Obama to stave off Armageddon.
"Obama won't give the order to attack if we persuade him not to," Castro said. "A lot of people are with us in the effort. We're here to make our contribution."
Castro walked onstage with the help of an aide, but he was expressive and alert when he spoke, banging the lectern for emphasis and animating his ideas with his huge hands.
The 11-minute speech was uncharacteristically short, and in the question period that followed, he referred to the Russians as "Soviets" and called their country the "USSR."
But for the most part, he seemed sharp for a man of his age. He even got in a few licks against old foes in Washington that he has long outlived.
"What's going to happen to this world?" Castro asked rhetorically. "The empire is coming to an end. And making war is no longer a way for the empire to sustain itself."
"At least Obama isn't Nixon, who was a cynic," he added. "Because the United States has had presidents who were either cynics or ignorant fools, like Reagan."
The delegates in the vast assembly hall mostly took turns praising Castro's return and his improved health. Like many Cubans, they seemed to treat him as a grandfatherly figure, cheering him on and smiling through his grim warnings of apocalypse.
The Castro family has Cuba-watchers puzzled these days, wondering which brother is really calling the shots. So far, Fidel has avoided commenting on the island's domestic concerns, holding forth instead on foreign affairs such as global warming, the Obama presidency and now atomic warfare.
Miriam Leiva is a former Cuban diplomat who is now a dissident writer and activist in Havana.
"He has determined the lives of Cubans and all that is going on in Cuba for almost 50 years, so he can't be away from that. And it's incredible what he's using. He wants to preserve humanity from a third world war. And in 1962, Fidel Castro put the world on the verge of a third world war," she says.
Unlike Leiva, most Cubans today were born after the Cuban missile crisis, and Castro rule is all they know. She thinks most Cubans are wary of Fidel's return, concerned that he'll further delay his brother's slow-moving economic reforms. As usual, though, it's hard to gauge how Cubans really feel.
On summer nights, entire families come to Havana's Malecon seawall to drink rum, hear music and escape their sweltering apartments. Few care to talk about politics.
But Ramon Gonzalez, an electrical engineer, says seeing Castro on TV again just seemed like a return to normalcy.
Gonzalez says that even though Cubans haven't seen Castro in years, he is doing the same things he did before — only now, he is supposedly no longer running the country.
"Castro's getting back the same influence he used to have," Gonzales says.
Castro has also re-emerged in time to do some book promotion. His 833-page memoir, The Strategic Victory, is coming out this month. It chronicles his childhood and his rebel army's rise to power in the late 1950s — and he is already working on a second volume.