When President Barack Obama spoke by phone to Cuban leader Raúl Castro earlier this week, they even had time for a bit of levity about Fidel Castro's legendarily long speeches.
The two leaders spoke Tuesday to iron out details of the release of prisoners, including American Alan Gross, who were held in both countries and discuss their mutual plan to reinstate diplomatic relations.
After speaking for 15 minutes at the top of the conversation with Raúl, Obama said he apologized for taking so much time but said he wanted to make sure his positions were clear.
Castro responded that Obama shouldn't worry because he was still a young man and still had a chance to break his brother Fidel's record for very long speeches, according to the president. His brother, he told Obama, once spoke for seven hours.
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Obama said Raúl Castro then proceeded to take twice as long as he did to make his points.
That gave Obama the opportunity to say, “It runs in the family.”
But Obama said, in response to a question at his Friday news conference, that was the only exchange the two had about Fidel Castro.
Throughout this week when the stunning announcement of renewed diplomatic ties has reverberated from Washington to Havana, among the big question have been: Where is Fidel Castro? And did he consent to the historic change? Or is the former Cuban leader in such deteriorated health that it no longer matters?
“Dictators need an enemy, the bigger the better,” said former Cuban political prisoner Sebastian Arcos, who now serves as assistant director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “I would be very surprised if Fidel Castro is conscious and approved this agreement.”
Frank Mora, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at FIU, also doubts Castro green-lighted the accord.
“Fidel Castro always took advantage of an adversarial relationship with the United States,” he said.
The 88-year-old Castro ceded power to his younger brother Raúl in 2008 after falling ill in 2006. But he continues to have a looming presence even though he is rarely publicly seen or heard.
Essays signed by him continue to be published in state-run newspapers, most recently on Oct. 14 in response to a New York Times editorial. And photos of meetings with foreign heads of state were published in July.
Fidel Castro’s last public appearance was on Jan. 8, when he attended the inauguration of an art gallery in Havana featuring the work of Cuban artist Alexis Leyva, aka Kcho. Looking fragile, he was hunched over and used a cane to walk, surrounded by an entourage of security. Many speculated that his years on earth were numbered.
Many Cuba watchers are now waiting to see whether Fidel Castro makes a statement about the agreement with the United States. Previous attempts by Washington at reconciliation under Fidel Castro’s reign were ultimately torpedoed. But since stepping in as leader, Raúl has introduced some economic reforms and — it is now clear — held quiet negotiations with President Barack Obama’s administration.
In making the new U.S.-Cuba ties announcement Wednesday, the two addressed their respective nations at the same time and each spoke for about 10 minutes.
“The normalization of relations, especially trade relations, has always been a priority for Raúl Castro, not because he is a Democrat but rather for his legitimacy as ruler,” Arcos said. “He did not do it before because Fidel would not allow it.”
Longtime anti-embargo advocate Max Lesnik disagrees.
“If Fidel Castro wasn’t in agreement, it would not have happened,” said Lesnik, of the Miami-based Alianza Martiana and founder of Replica magazine, who has long been known as a personal friend of Fidel Castro.
Before January’s appearance at the art gallery, Fidel Castro attended the National Assembly meeting in February 2013 but did not speak. Lesnik said he has not seen the former leader but is sure he remains in good health.
“If he has suffered a setback in his health, that would be very difficult to keep secret,” Lesnik said. “Besides Raúl would not do anything so dramatic to affect his brother’s well-being if Fidel were opposed.
“It is important for this agreement to have taken place while Fidel Castro remains alive and lucid because had it been done with Fidel not physically present, there would always be doubt as to whether or not he agreed or would have done something different,” Lesnik said. “This was done with his blessing. Otherwise, it would be viewed as a betrayal to the revolution.”
Much remains to be seen about how the agreement between Washington and Havana will unfold. Also in question is whether there with be changes to the current government structure on the island.
Raúl Castro, 83, appeared alone in military uniform during his noon televised address on Wednesday. Watching from a couch inside government offices, according to published photos in Cuba, was Vice President Ramiro Valdés, a high-profile revolutionary who represents the old guard and now oversees the island’s telecommunications.
“That's very interesting and suggests that Ramiro can be a contender in an internal struggle,” Arcos said. “The back story is that Raúl and Ramiro do not get along. … Raúl has not given Ramiro a high profile under his administration. If Fidel is in his final phase, the dispute between Raúl and Ramiro gets interesting.”