The 'DeFidelization' of Cuba

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There are signs in Cuba that Fidel Castro's power is truly waning, despite that many Cubans have a hard time believing that his rule is really over.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a struggle to control the Amazon's waterways, but first Raul Castro's been president of Cuba officially now for three months. His brother, Fidel Castro, hasn't been seen in public since he became ill in July of 2006.

Still, many Cubans have a hard believing the Fidelista Era is really finished. NPR's Tom Gjelten was in Cuba recently to find out what remains of Fidel Castro's influence.

TOM GJELTEN: As of February 24, Fidel Castro was no longer Cuba's president, but anyone who's followed Cuban history over the past 50 years knows Fidel's authority never derived from a particular office. For all Cubans knew, Raul Castro would let his brother run the country from his hospital bed.

(Soundbite of political parade)

GJELTEN: When hundreds of thousands Cuban workers paraded through Revolution Square on May Day, it was Raul on the reviewing state, but I noticed that day it was Fidel who got all the cheers.

Unidentified People: (Shouting) Viva Fidel.

GJELTEN: Raul didn't say a word that day. Every so often, there's news of a friendly foreign leader visiting Fidel in his hospital room. He's allegedly writing regular newspaper columns in which he expounds on the critical issues facing Cuba. So I figured, like many Cubans, maybe Fidel is still in charge, but one of his newspaper columns made me curious. Writing in mid-April, Fidel criticized an unidentified Cuban media commentator for applauding the idea of economic change in Cuba.

I wondered what this meant for the future of reform on the island. Fidel's word has virtually been law in Cuba for 50 years. A sympathetic French socialist named Rene Dumont, who visited Cuba in the 1960s, wrote afterwards of his concern that, quote, the man who opposes Castro's ideas is quickly rejected. As a result, Dumont wrote, when Castro sets forth a mistake in proposition, nobody dares oppose him.

Would Cubans now dare do just that? On the day after the big parade, I went to see a senior Cuban official I've known for years to ask him about Fidel's column.

Not everyone here agrees with Fidel, the official told me. Fidel has a vision all his own.

At that moment, I knew Cuba was changing. Through more than 20 visits to Cuba over the years, I had never heard a senior government official distance himself from Fidel so explicitly.

A Cuban friend of mine says the country is now going through a process of de-Fidelization. I heard a similar analysis from a dissident economist in Cuba name Oscar Espinosa Chepe. Oscar told me that even the minor changes that Raul Castro has introduced in Cuba are significant.

Mr. OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE (Economist, Cuba): (Speaking foreign language).

GJELTEN: Fidel Castro never would have permitted Cubans to have cell phones, Oscar told me. He never would've allowed Cubans to go into tourist hotels. He never would've allowed Cubans to buy computers.

If Oscar and my Cuban friend are right, things are happening in Cuba now over the objection of Fidel Castro. This would either mean he's given up the power he has held so long or he's no longer in a physical or mental condition to exercise that power.

Some Cubans think other people are writing the newspaper columns published under Fidel's name, but why would they put out a column in which Fidel seems to criticize the reforms being implemented by his own brother? There's an explanation for that, as well: What better way to begin a process of de-Fidelization than to portray the 81-year-old revolutionary as being on the wrong side of reforms that are widely popular.

Conspiracy theories have always been popular in Cuba. Fidel Castro may be in complete command of his faculties, but I did come away from Cuba thinking for the first time that the country is moving on without him. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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