Fidel Castro, turning 83, still a force in Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) – Fidel Castro is not the presence he once was in Cuba after three years out of public view but as he turns 83 on Thursday he still has clout and is working to ensure the island stays communist long after he is gone.

Although younger brother Raul Castro, who is 78, replaced him as president last year, Fidel Castro continues to be a powerful international voice for Cuba, through the regular commentary columns he writes for state-run media.

His internal role in Cuba’s government is less clear but it is generally assumed that while his brother runs the show from day to day, he does it in consultation with Fidel Castro.

“It’s still, I think, a partnership but Raul is now the senior partner,” said Brian Latell of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “Fidel is not able to be involved in the day-to-day stuff anymore.”

Fidel Castro led the revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, and ran the country for 49 years before he underwent emergency surgery for an undisclosed intestinal ailment in July 2006.

He ceded power provisionally to Raul Castro and dropped out of sight and in February 2008 officially resigned on health grounds, allowing his brother to take his place as president.

He has been seen only in videos and photographs with visiting leaders since then but has taken on a kind of “conscience of communism” role in the nearly 250 columns he has written from his semi-seclusion in an undisclosed location.

In recent weeks, Castro has written mostly about the coup in Honduras that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and a U.S. plan to use military bases in Colombia. Cuba wants Zelaya reinstated.

Fidel Castro also has played down cautious steps taken this year by U.S. President Barack Obama to improve ties with Havana and has made very clear Washington should not expect concessions from Havana. “The adversary should never be under the illusion that Cuba will surrender,” he wrote in April.

Obama has said he will keep the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in place to press the Cuban leadership to improve human rights and grant political freedoms.

Fidel Castro’s writings and comments by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez show these two socialist allies still appear to work closely, orchestrating a strategy to counter U.S. influence and promote leftist governments in the region.

“LINES IN THE SAND”

But at home in Cuba, Raul and other leaders are battling the country’s worst economic crisis since the 1990s while they worry that the revolutionaries who transformed the country into a communist state five decades ago are getting old.

Raul Castro has tweaked the state-run economy to try to increase productivity but has also made clear that the goal of the aging leaders is to ensure communism lives on after them.

“We must ensure the impossibility of reversing the socio-political regime of the country, which is the only guarantee of its true independence,” he said in an August 1 speech to Cuba’s National Assembly.

Fidel Castro’s role, Latell said, has been to prevent the government from straying too far from the path of communist orthodoxy as it seeks to strengthen the economy.

“He is laying out prohibitions, lines in the sand, that Raul and successive generations must not cross,” said Latell, author of “After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader.”

But even as Fidel Castro continues to play politics at high levels, there are signs his place in the Cuban public’s consciousness has slipped.

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

His prolonged absence from public view has made him a remote figure for young people, who also tend to be impatient with a government many view as too ideologically rigid.

“Fidel is very intelligent but he can’t admit he made a mistake by giving Cuba a system that never worked,” said 26-year-old construction worker Raul Gonzalez Gonzalez.

Older Cubans, who remember Fidel Castro at the height of his powers, tend to be more positive.

“Fidel Castro has given us stability,” said Cicero Argent, a 63-year-old security guard. “Maybe things are a little difficult right now but we don’t have a drug problem, we don’t have a lot of crime like in other countries.”

That legacy should allow his successors to retain control after his death, said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

“Though the prospect of his death still generates much speculation and Fidel’s death will be a mega-media event, he will leave behind a Cuban government sufficiently equipped to weather his passing without major disruption,” said Erikson.

“By living long enough to micro-manage the Cuban transition, Fidel has outwitted even his fiercest enemies.”

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