Commentary: Fidel Castros' new game

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Here's the question being asked by almost anybody who is following the latest news from Cuba — what on earth is Fidel Castro up to?

Since he made his first public appearance in four years last month, Cuba's officially retired dictator -- who turned 84 Friday -- hasn't stopped showing up in public, and grabbing the headlines.

Proclaiming himself "totally" recovered from the intestinal ailment that forced him to turn over the presidency to his brother Gen. Raul Castro in 2006, Fidel Castro has made more than a dozen public appearances since he was photographed visiting the National Center of Scientific Investigations on July 7.

Is he trying to undermine his brother Raul, or is he trying to help him? There are at least five major theories about what's motivating Fidel's sudden return to the limelight:

Theory No. 1: He is stepping back to send a strong message to Cubans, including his Raul, not to deviate from hard-line Communism, at a time when Cuba's economic woes are driving many on the island to think about market-oriented economic reforms.

"Castro is trying to reassert two of the main pillars of the Cuban revolution: anti-Americanism and internationalism," writes Jaime Suchlicki, head of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, in a report entitled, "What is Fidel Castro up to?"

Theory No. 2: Fidel is trying to support Raul, and to send a strong message to the hard-line wing of Cuba's Communist Party that he stands by his brother's limited economic reforms.

"By becoming very visible, Fidel Castro may be telling the Communist Party's orthodox wing: 'Look, I'm lucid, I'm in charge, I know what's going on in the world, I support Raul, and I don't want anybody to do anything against him," Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, who is recovering at home after a 135-day hunger strike, told me in a telephone interview from Santa Clara, Cuba.

Theory No. 3: Castro is trying to grab international headlines to eclipse the news about the death of Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo earlier this year, and that the dissidents' protests that followed. Until his reappearance, the international news on Cuba was focused on Zapata Tamayo's death and the dissident movement. Today, it's focused on Fidel Castro.

Theory No. 4: Castro is trying to grab headlines to divert world attention from Cuba's recent agreement with the Roman Catholic Church to free 52 political prisoners, and the subsequent release -- rather, forced deportation -- of 21 of them.

In addition to undermining the dissidents' recent propaganda victories, Castro may be trying to keep Cubans on the island from thinking that the prisoners' release was a sign of weakness by the government. That, in the mind of the Castro brothers, would entice peaceful oppositionists to step up their anti-government marches.

"As a good politician that he is, he wants to make sure than when people abroad talk about Cuba, they talk about him, and not about the political prisoners," Farinas told me.

Theory No. 5: It's an ego thing. Castro -- the utmost narcissist-Leninist -- could not stand the role of invisible foreign affairs editorialist to which he has been confined for the past four years. Now that he feels that his health has improved, he can't help but to return to center stage.

My opinion: There may be some truth in all five theories, but I think the answer to Castro's reappearance lies mostly in a combination of the latter three.

It's no coincidence that Castro's first public showing at the National Center for Scientific Investigations took place July 7, the same day that Cuba's Church announced that the regime had agreed to free 52 political prisoners. And it's no coincidence that Castro's first extended appearance on Cuban television took place on July 12, only hours before the first group of political prisoners arrived in Spain and started telling the world about the horrors of Cuban prisons.

Castro is trying to get the media to focus on him, rather than on what his victims are saying about his hereditary military dictatorship. And we are all falling into his trap by focusing our eyes on him.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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