A Cuba expert discusses Fidel's illness, the nation's changing mood as
he relinquishes power and how Havana could affect the U.S. presidential
By Joseph Contreras
Updated: 1:53 p.m. ET May 29, 2007
May 29, 2007 - Fidel Castro has broken an almost 10-month silence about
the details of his health problems that forced him to provisionally
transfer presidential powers to his younger brother, Raúl. In a column
that appeared in Cuba's state-controlled media last Thursday, the
80-year-old communist leader acknowledged for the first time that he
underwent "several" operations to halt the intestinal bleeding that
sidelined him in July 2006 and stated that he was fed by intravenous
lines and catheters "for many months." Castro has not been seen in
public since falling ill, and though he claims to have regained some of
the weight he lost last year and is now eating normally, he also seemed
to rule out any return to public life for the time being. NEWSWEEK's
Joseph Contreras spoke with Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and
author of the book "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and
Cuba's Next Leader" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), who now teaches at the
University of Miami.
NEWSWEEK: What does Castro's latest article tell you about his health?
Brian Latell: He's gravely ill still, and I think this latest statement
is an admission of that. It's not cancer as many of us thought
initially, but whatever caused the bleeding that necessitated the first
surgery could happen again. He's not the same person that he was before
July of last year, he's not performing the leadership role that he did
for so many years and I doubt he's ever going to return to that kind of
Castro was a no-show at the Workers Day festivities in Havana on May 1.
Why do you think he decided to break his silence about his health
I wonder whether he is preparing the Cuban elites and the Cuban people
for the other shoe to drop, possibly on July 26, the revolutionary
anniversary [of Castro's failed attack on a Cuban Army garrison in
1953]. The other shoe could be another statement that he or his brother
Raúl would utter at a mass event on July 26, in which he would announce
his permanent abdication from power.
The former Cuban intelligence officer Domingo Amuchástegui has said that
Fidel is still very much in control over key policy decisions, despite
his health woes. Do you agree?
I don't see any evidence that Fidel is engaged in critical, major-issue
decision making. If he's influencing policy he's not doing that
publicly, he's doing that very privately. I think he is functioning to
constrain, to inhibit, to impede the kinds of change that Raúl and other
successors are interested in implementing.
Do you think Fidel is in touch with Raúl and other senior government
officials on a regular basis?
I think they talk. But both the little bit of evidence we have and the
lack of evidence in other areas suggests to me that Fidel is not playing
the kind of central role that he always did before. I think he's still
Is there a power vacuum in Cuba at the moment?
I don't think that Raúl and the other successors are threatened in the
short term. I think it's unlikely that people will be out in the streets
protesting, that hasn't happened to my knowledge in these 10 months. But
there's an inertia because [Raúl is] reluctant to move out in directions
that Fidel would not approve of.
What has happened in Cuba in the past 10 months that surprised you?
I was surprised that the otherwise very hardline Raúl has encouraged the
sense among Cuban intellectuals, artists and homosexuals—who were
previously so badly persecuted—that times are changing, that it's not
going to be as bad for them as it used to be. Yet at the same time,
they've been cracking down very hard on dissidents of all kinds. There
are at least three additional independent journalists who are now in
prison during Raúl's watch, and they've expelled foreign journalists.
So has anything substantive really changed in Cuba?
The mood has changed. In the official state media Cubans are being told,
"Look, we can't blame American imperialism for all of the problems we're
having. These problems for the most part are our problems, problems that
are systemic." These are admissions that were never possible under
Fidel. [But] in terms of delivering on substantial substantive change,
there's really been very little, if any.
Last year some U.S. officials stated that Castro had cancer, and then
National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said in December that the
Cuban leader only had "months, not years" to live. What kind of report
card would you give the U.S. intelligence community on the quality of
its information about Castro's illness?
It appears that Negroponte was wrong when he said that Fidel had just a
matter of months and not years. But I really can't say how well the
intelligence community has performed since I don't have access to their
How many years do you give Raúl, given what we know of his health and
He's going to be 76 very shortly on June 3. His health is a state secret
just as Fidel's has always been, but at his age and given a lifestyle
that has featured heavy drinking, there's a good chance that he's
suffered serious undisclosed health problems. It's very likely that most
Cuban officials at the levels just below Raúl expect him to be an
interim leader who won't be there for very many years. Four, five at the
most, maybe fewer.
What role do you see the Cuba issue playing in the upcoming U.S.
It's hard to imagine Cuba not coming into play. Just about all the
candidates on both sides of the aisle are going to be coming to South
Florida and seeking the right kind of policy positions to attract the
maximum number of Cuban-American votes.
Do you see any prospect of change in U.S. policy toward Cuba during the
remaining months of the Bush administration, or a new, bold policy
initiative coming from any of the declared candidates?
Most of the candidates will be approaching these issues very cautiously.
I'm not sure that there's any consensus in the Congress in Washington to
take on Cuban issues in the short term, like trying to eliminate or
reduce the travel ban or the embargo [on trade with Cuba].
As a longtime Cuba analyst, what signs will tell you that the patience
of ordinary people with the status quo on the island is running out?
I think that Raúl and the others in the leadership are very seriously
concerned about the apathy and disenchantment of the majority of the
younger generation. They want more access to the rest of the world, they
want to be able to read and to listen to music and even to travel. Now
will that discontent and apathy grow into a really serious challenge for
the regime? There could be isolated disturbances involving the youth. I
don't see any signs that that's going to happen right now or in the
short term. But it could happen somewhat further out.
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.