On Saturday, Fidel Castro will turn 90. The rebel, statesman and womanizer has long since retired from public life. Many Cubans, however, will celebrate their revolutionary leader’s birthday.
You have to look pretty hard in Havana for hints of the upcoming 90th birthday of Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba’s 1959 revolution. Sure, there are freshly painted wishes on several walls, a number of posters are placed here and there, and the windows of state-owned shops display salutations, but Castro is hardly a personal presence In Cubans’ daily lives anymore.
The world became aware of Castro in 1953, when he led an attack on the Fulgencio Batista regime’s Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba and then made his “History Will Absolve Me” speech. Six years later, he led his revolution to victory.
On July 31, 2006, Cubans were confronted with something that many had thought unimaginable: With a stern face, Castro’s private secretary announced the revolutionary comandante’s temporary withdrawal from political life on prime-time TV. After Castro’s 47 years in power, his poor health – still a state secret at the time – had forced him to hand all prominent public functions over to his brother Raul, who is five years his junior. Two years later, Castro made his retirement permanent.
Raul Castro, who has a reputation of being more pragmatic than his brother, has instituted a number of changes in his years in power. Buying and selling cars and real estate is now legal, travel restrictions have been lifted, and internet access has been expanded. In addition, Raul has opened Cuba’s economy to foreign investors, reduced the public sector and created room for private initiatives. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have since started their own businesses. Raul’s key political achievement, however, is Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States.
‘Time to go’
Fidel Castro reportedly takes a skeptical view of his brother’s cozying with the United States. “We don’t need any gifts from the Empire,” Castro wrote in Granma, the official of the Communist Party (PCC), after US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March. He reminded Granma’s readers of the US’s five decades of sanctions – and occasional attacks. A former head of the secret service has said the United States and US-backed Cuban exile groups have attempted 638 attacks on Castro and the country.
Castro’s demise has been the frequent subject of rumors in recent years. “My death was made up so many times,” he once said. “On the day I die for real, no one will believe it anymore.” Castro has apparently even overcome the severe intestinal ailment that had forced him to retire a decade go. He has also given up his former ubiquity: There are practically no public appearances these days. Occasionally, he receives foreign visitors such as Pope Francis or French President Francois Hollande for private talks. On such occasions, the coverage by state media have shown a haggard man with a brittle voice dressed very comfortably.
Still, Castro remains an important figure for the PCC; some members of the party feel that Raul’s moves are in contrast with the former leader’s vision. “Conservatives who don’t want change hold on to Fidel,” the former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray told the Associated Press news agency. “There’s no doubt about that at all.”
Fidel Castro’s legacy is at stake. “For each one of us, there will be a time to go, but the ideas of the Cuban Communists are here to stay,” Castro said in April at the concluding session of the PCC’s convention, which is held every five years. It was “perhaps one of the last occasions where I take the floor in this room,” he said. Quite a few of the 1,000 delegates could not hold back their tears.
And now Cuba is celebrating Castro’s 90th birthday. Television is showing clips and interviews from his glory days in various special broadcasts. Biran, the eastern city where Castro was born in 1926, expects hundreds of visitors to attend festivities over the weekend; trees will be planted in his honor. But, in all likelihood, Castro won’t make a public appearance.
Whether Fidel Castro has been absolved by history as he had said in 1953 or not, one thing is certain: The world will remember him both as the young bearded man who won Cuba’s revolution and as the man who turned gray making his stand against the United States for five decades.