By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 7, 2009; A08
On the front page of Cuba's state newspaper Granma last week, the lone star on the Cuban flag had mysteriously faded away in an old black-and-white photograph announcing a celebration of patriot José Martí. Copies quickly sold out as rumors flew across the island. What did it mean? Was it a portent? Had the inevitable finally happened? As it turned out, Fidel Castro was not dead. Just as he has not been dead for more than 50 years, ever since the United Press reported that he had been killed by government soldiers on Dec. 2, 1956, hours after returning to Cuba to wage guerrilla war. The missing star? Apparently a printing error.
But over the past two years, the subject of Castro's health has become an obsession among Cubans and Cuba watchers, and the fever peaked last month as word circulated that he was on his deathbed, which turned out not to be true. In fact, he was apparently up late Wednesday night, blogging about President Obama. Castro informed Obama that previous U.S. governments had pursued policies of criminal aggression, not that he was blaming Obama.
"On the contrary," Castro posted, "being born of a Kenyan Muslim father and a white American Christian deserves special merit in the context of U.S. society and I am the first to recognize that." The speculation about his continued viability is fueled by the fact that Castro, 82, has not been seen in public since the summer of 2006, when he underwent what is believed to have been intestinal surgery. The whereabouts and medical condition of the reformed cigar smoker are state secrets, even though he formally transferred power to his younger brother Raúl last year. "The fixation about the health of Fidel is without parallel," said Daniel P. Erikson, an analyst at the policy group Inter-American Dialogue and author of a new book, "The Cuba Wars," whose first chapter is titled "Die Another Day."
"The death speculation, the death obsession, about Castro is varsity league; nothing else is close," said Erikson, adding that interest in North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who disappeared from public view for months after reportedly suffering a stroke last summer, pales in comparison. "And this could go on for a very long time, for clearly Fidel is getting good health care, and it is, after all, Fidel Castro we're talking about. He does not give up easily."
Some Cuba experts say that the long, slow fade of Castro, rather than being a disaster for the communist government of Cuba, might serve to preserve the power of the ruling elite by easing the transition -- first from Fidel to Raúl, then from Raúl to a younger generation.
"It is as if Fidel has turned an actual crisis -- his inevitable death -- into another opportunity," said David Scott Palmer, a Cuba scholar and professor at Boston University, who says that Castro, in his essays, blogs and "reflections," is preparing the country for his final exit. "Little by little, Cuba gets used to the idea of life without Fidel. . . . He seems to be skillfully managing his own departure." Palmer and his colleagues stress that no one can predict what will happen when Castro dies. It is the same lack of information that has made it impossible to know much about Castro's health -- which leaves Cuba watchers with only the faintest clues to work with. So they peer at official photographs released by the government after state visits and parse his blog entries, looking for signs of gathering frailty or renewed vitality.
"For so long, for half a century, the stability of Cuba has depended on Fidel to manage the country's affairs. And his government doesn't want to break the spell. He is the talisman," the protective charm, Erikson said. And though many Cuban exiles will party in the streets of Miami on the day of his death, what happens on the island is the great unknown. Being wrong about Castro's health is almost a tradition among U.S. officials. In 2005, CIA analysts concluded that Castro was suffering from Parkinson's disease. A few days later, Castro gave a five-hour speech to a group of Havana University students and said he never felt better. In 2006, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte said Castro was knocking on death's door. "Everything we see indicates it will not be much longer. . . . Months, not years," Negroponte said at a meeting of Washington Post editors and reporters. Journalists have also had a tough time predicting the end. One of the most dedicated Cuba watchers, the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, foresaw a relatively rapid conclusion in his book "Castro's Final Hour." The book was published in 1992. Writing about the recent rumors of Castro's imminent death, the Chicago Tribune in an editorial got the mood right with the headline: "Castro is dying, again."
In a commentary published Sunday about the latest rumors, Manny Garcia, a senior editor at the Miami Herald, wrote that "Fidel Castro is the journalistic equivalent of a kidney stone -- a constant pain who never seems to go away, and you pray that he passes, soon." Last month, based on the rumors, the Herald sent reporters to cover Castro's death, again. Though he has not been seen in public, Castro does meet with visiting world leaders. He has been shown at undisclosed locations in photographs released by the government. Is he in a hospital room? A house? A government office? In November, he was pictured with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Castro, as is his custom now, was wearing his zippered track suit. He looked okay. But then the photographs stopped. Castro did not attend the 50th anniversary celebration of the revolution in Santiago on New Year's Day. Instead, he penned a very short note congratulating the Cuban people for their heroism. Then silence.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is a close ally and frequent flier to Cuba, appeared to be saying something significant when he told his radio and television show audience last month: "We know that the Fidel who used to walk down streets and through towns at dawn, looking like a warrior, wearing his uniform and embracing his people, will not return." Instead, the Cuban leader "will remain in our memories." On Jan. 21, Castro met with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Afterward, Raúl Castro accompanied her to the Havana airport, where he told reporters, "Now you know that Fidel is fine." He said his brother spends days "exercising, thinking and reading a lot, advising me, helping me." A few days later, a photograph was released showing Fidel Castro greeting Fernández de Kirchner. He is standing and wearing his Adidas track suit. Fernández de Kirchner told reporters that she and Castro spoke for an hour, that he seemed healthy and that they talked politics.
Later, Chávez admitted that, "sure, there are once again some rumors that Fidel died" but that his Cuban ally was still "alive and kicking." So it seems. Because then Castro himself wrote one of his essays, explaining that he has been rereading all of his articles and other materials, reminiscing. "I have had the rare privilege to follow events for such a long time," he wrote. "I get information and think quietly about events. "I don't expect to enjoy that privilege in four years, when Obama's first presidential term ends," he wrote. "I feel fine, but insist that no one should feel bound by my reflections, my state of health, or even my death."