Fidel Castro turns 90 Saturday among official tributes and rumors of a new economic crisis.
Few would have imagined that the former Cuban leader could have survived assassination attempts, a near-fatal surgery a decade ago and even outlived his closest ally, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who died three years ago at the age of 58.
In Cuba, the comandante's birthday is being celebrated as a major anniversary. Since the start of the year, the government has been organizing tributes around the island — from photo exhibits to documentaries — as well as published books of his speeches, scheduled music concerts and even produced a music video. Then there is the much-publicized planting of the hearty caguairan, a hardwood tropical tree native to eastern Cuba that serves as a symbol of the former leader’s birthplace and strength.
The magazine Bohemia will dedicate an entire issue to him. The web portal Cubadebate created a page to honor his work and the TV program Mesa Redonda dedicated one of its recent shows to a chat on “Fidel's legendary ability to foresee the future.” Stickers with the official slogan of the celebrations, “Fidel, 90 y más” (Fidel, 90 and more) are everywhere.
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The campaign to turn his birthday on Aug. 13 into something special went into even higher gear after Castro gave what was interpreted as a farewell address in April to the Cuban Communist Party's VII Congress.
“I will soon turn 90. I never thought that would happen, and it didn't happen because we tried. It was pure chance,” Castro, his voice faltering, told the stunned audience. “Soon I will be like everyone else. We all face the same fate... This may be one one of the last times I speak in this hall.”
Max Lesnik, a Castro friend since their years at the University of Havana, said he's not surprised by the many celebrations. “Anniversaries that end in 0s are celebrated in Cuba. Besides, when a person is 90 years old, anything can happen,” he said.
But the festivities surrounding Castro's 90th birthday may be based on a lie, retired CIA analyst Brian Latell wrote in his book, After Fidel: The inside story of Castro's regime and Cuba's next leader.
According to his research, Castro may actually be 89.
Latell wrote there's evidence Castro was born in 1927 but that his father, Angel Castro, obtained a forged birth certificate saying he was born in 1926 so he could meet the minimum age required for entering the Belén boarding school. His mother and sisters confirmed the change, which would mean his birthday cake should have one less candle.
Whether 90 or 89, the Cuban leader's longevity has been both celebrated and lamented. In Miami, home to hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles who fled the island to escape communism and turmoil, he is reviled by a significant portion of the community.
“Fidel Castro is the biggest promoter of hatred and destruction in all of Cuban history,” said former Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican and lifelong Castro foe whose aunt, Mirta Díaz-Balart, was Castro's first wife. “Fidel Castro stole the Cubans' history, their prosperity and, most cruelly, their hopes. He destroyed the republic, and the fact that he has lived so long is an extraordinary tragedy.”
The powerful passions that Castro still unleashes are linked to the cult of his personality and complete identification with the political system he installed on the island, beginning with the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 by Castro-led guerrillas.
“Few revolutions have been focused so much on a single individual as the Cuban revolution,” said Sebastián Arcos, a former Cuban political prisoner and deputy director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “The very longevity of the Cuban revolution has been dramatic for Cuba because it has reinforced the disaster and is directly linked to Fidel Castro's longevity. Fidel Castro is the Cuban revolution. That's how he defined it.”
Ten years ago, an emergency intestinal surgery and other required medical procedures put him at death's door and forced him to pass his official powers to brother Raúl Castro.
But the elder Castro survived, some say, because of his genes – his father died at the age of 80 and his brother Ramón at 91. But he also was under constant medical attention and what Lesnik called “a powerful will to live.”
Fidel Castro had already pulled through a spectacular fall two years earlier, shattering a knee, and stopped smoking his famous cigars many years before. His public comment that he wanted to live until the age of 120 led to the government's creation in 2004 of the “Club 120” for seniors, directed by one of Castro’s personal doctors.
His Cuban biographers insist that he survived more than 600 assassination attempts. Latell said that only two or three attempts organized by the CIA were serious “and did not even come close to being successful.” Nevertheless, his personal security force at one point had 10,000 members, according to former Cuban intelligence official Enrique García.
“Fidel Castro was so central, so essential during the first years of his revolutionary government that U.S. officials were convinced it would collapse if they could assassinate him. But they never could,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University. “By the time illness forced him to step aside, the regime was no longer based on his personality alone, and the transition to brother Raúl was smooth.”
But his longevity also meant that the Castro persona that younger Cubans see today is not the young rebel in the eastern mountains of Cuba or the bearded revolutionary leader in olive green uniform who delivered furious and long speeches. They see a frail old man, who rarely appears in public except to meet foreign visitors, dressed in Adidas jogging suits.
After 47 years in power and another 10 writing opinion columns known as “reflections,” Castro is now turning 90 during a summer in which the island faces predictions of rough economic seas ahead.
The architect of a lucrative alliance with Venezuela that helped keep Cuba’s economy afloat for years, Castro is now seeing the collapse of the so-called Chavismo in Venezuela, which has sparked new fears on the island over the economic viability of the brand of socialism he tried to build.
Castro also has lived long enough to see his own brother dismantle what was, at least in public, the central tenet of his political program — hostile relations with the “enemy to the north.” Like a big brother pointing out dangers to a sibling, Castro wrote after President Barack Obama's visit to Havana that “we don't need the empire to give us anything.”
Cuba's warming relations with the United States have forced the Cuban news media to juggle its words carefully, portraying him as victorious in the fight against imperialism yet at the same time insisting he has always respected the American people.
Some U.S. analysts believe that even though Raúl Castro went against his brother's wishes in improving relations with Washington, Fidel Castro's lingering presence has nevertheless slowed the pace of economic and political change in Cuba.
“I don't believe Fidel was happy with the rapprochement with the United States. He would have insisted on lifting the embargo and the return of Guantánamo (naval base),” said Latell. “Fidel is like the anchor that keeps the ship from moving forward.”
According to Arcos, the brothers still work hand-in-hand.
“It's not the first time Raúl and Fidel play good cop-bad cop. The impression is that Fidel is more conservative, compared to Raúl. But Raúl is more ideologically Marxist than Fidel.”
Lesnik agreed: “I think those who say that Raúl is one thing and Fidel is another … don't know the intimate relationship they have. Raúl is the most Fidelista figure in the history of the Cuban revolution.”
Even though his physical presence in Cuba's political life diminished considerably since his health crisis in 2006, Fidel Castro's death will have a significant impact on the island's future, some observers believe.
“Because it is a totalitarian, two-man regime, the death of Fidel Castro will be very significant because that is the system he put in place,” said Díaz-Balart. “His death will allow the start of Cuba's future.”
The death of “the founder of a revolution or a totalitarian government usually contributes to the breakdown of the regime,” said Arcos. He pointed out the cases of Francisco Franco in Spain, António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal and Mao Tse-tung in China.
Castro's death will erase “the psychological power of the revolution's founder over many people who believe in the revolutionary process only because they believe blindly in Fidel Castro,” Arcos added.
Just like the dispute over his birth year, however, views differ on the impact of his death.
Lesnik, like many Castro supporters, argued that the Cuban leader has assured himself a place among the most important leaders of the 20th Century.
“You can't write the history of Cuba without him. What will endure of Fidel and his revolution is his uncompromising defense of Cuban sovereignty,” he said.
LeoGrande pointed out that Castro has lived long enough to consolidate his revolution and guarantee it will survive beyond him.
Dissidents on the island, meanwhile, refer to the Castro leadership as a dictatorship, not a revolution, but agree the regime could survive Castro's death as a family dynasty.
“This is a picture of a family that believes it is genetically better qualified to wield power. In this new chapter of the Castros' saga, we need to acknowledge that a family renewal is taking place,” dissidents Adrián Sosa and Antonio G. Rodiles wrote in April.
Castro's 90th birthday also points to the approach of the historic judgment he predicted in 1953, when he led an attack on the Moncada army barracks, a bloody failure that is paradoxically celebrated as the birth of the Cuban revolution. Captured and put on trial, Castro promised that “history will absolve me.”
“Fidel Castro will be remembered as a politician so in tune with Cuban political culture that he was able to spark a revolution that overthrew a hated dictator, finally won Cuba's full independence from the United States, and raised the standard of living of the poor”, said LeoGrande, “but at the cost of putting Cuba in the center of the Cold War, adopting Soviet-styled economic policies that hobbled growth, and restricting the political liberties of the Cubans.
“It will be up to future generations of Cubans,” he added, “to decide whether or not history will absolve him.”
Until then, Cubans on the island will mark another year of Castro with scripted concerts, films, exhibits and even tree plantings in his honor.