The U.S. diplomats had returned home and more than a month had passed since the announcement of a seismic shift in U.S.-Cuba relations before Fidel Castro, father of the Cuban Revolution, finally chimed in.
His message was hardly a ringing endorsement of the new policy, but he did indicate that he thought his brother, Cuban leader Raúl Castro, was taking the right steps in renewing diplomatic relations with the United States and working toward normalization.
Fidel, 88, sent a letter to the Federation of University Students on Monday and it was read aloud at the University of Havana during a ceremony honoring the 70th anniversary of Fidel’s university entrance on Sept. 4, 1945. He graduated in 1950 with a law degree.
On Tuesday, the text was splashed on the front page of Granma — the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, and also appeared in Juventud Rebelde, Trabajadores and other Cuba news outlets.
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“It was necessary to have Fidel’s words on the front page of Granma to bless what has happened so far,” said Ted Piccone, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who studies Cuba and U.S.-Latin American relations.
“Fidel Castro is largely checked out in terms of his influence but he still has this overall symbolic relevance as an authority figure, the father of the revolution,” he said.
By the time Castro broke his silence on the historic events of the past month, U.S. diplomats had arrived home after concluding talks in Havana that were the start of the process to open embassies, so his message stole no thunder from the business at hand.
But Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said Fidel’s words might, in a sense, ease the work of the Cuban delegation in its future negotiations with the United States.
“Perhaps it will make it easier for the diplomats. Now they have the moral authority of the maximum leader behind them,” he said.
Fidel, said Duany, remains relevant as a “symbolic figure — but not someone consulted regularly on foreign and domestic policy. He still seems to have this senior statesman role and Raúl Castro seems to respect that role.”
Analysts have speculated that such a policy shift wouldn’t have happened if Fidel Castro were in charge, and Castro acknowledged he still doesn’t put much faith in Washington politics.
“I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a single word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts,” Castro said in his message to the students.
“We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the people of the world, among them our adversaries,” wrote Castro, who from time to time publishes essays known as Reflections. His last Reflection was published in October.
“Any peaceful and negotiated solution to the problems between the United States and the people or any people in Latin America that doesn’t imply force or the use of force should be treated in accordance with international norms and principles,” Castro said of his brother’s policies.
“You can sense he is not entirely pleased with the rapprochement with the United States but stands loyally by his younger brother, just as his brother always stood loyally by him, when he was president,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California San Diego and a former senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs.
Fidel Castro temporarily relinquished power to his brother in 2006 when he became ill and then ceded power to him after he officially retired in 2008.
Andy Gómez, a long-time Cuba analyst, said Fidel’s less-than-full embrace of rapprochement might be a nod to the remaining Fidelistas or old guard in Cuba.
Gómez, a retired University of Miami scholar, said it also was interesting that Castro chose to address his message to the Federation of University Students. “The FEU has always played a significant role in politics in Cuba,” he said.
“He reminds them, the students, of their duty,” said Gomez. “But I think it’s a bit late. I think the majority of students are no longer willing to do what he did or what he asks of them.”
Castro writes that while he was at the university, he was able to dispense with “bourgeois delusions whose tentacles succeeded in entangling so many students at a time when they had less experience and more fervor.”
Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, said it is hard to judge the importance of Fidel’s message because there are so many unknowns, such as whether Fidel is still an active player, does he follow Raúl’s instructions or his own, how much support can he muster, was the message requested by Raúl and why did it take him so long to respond to the shifting U.S.-Cuba relationship?
However, he said the process of renewed relations seems to be proceeding pretty much as outlined by Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama on Dec. 17.
“My takeaway from Fidel’s letter is that there remains skepticism, some opposition to rapprochement and Raúl has to take that into account,” said Hakim. “But the fact that he has gotten this far suggests that he can continue a steady pace of advance regardless of skepticism or opposition.”
The message also served another purpose: to further dispel rumors of Fidel Castro’s demise. Three weeks ago, rumors that the retired leader had taken a turn for the worse or may even have died reached a crescendo in Miami and Cuba.
The next week, Castro sent a letter to his friend, Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona. Although Maradona didn’t disclose all the details of the letter, photos of Maradona with the signed letter appeared on Telesur state television. “Fidel is doing very well,” Maradona said.