|Fidel Castro’s indefatigable influence over Cuban politics remains on display [EPA]|
Fidel Castro has made a career of returning from the brink of disaster.
In 1956, when his band of seasick comrades landed in Cuba, half of them were killed immediately.
Of the 82 that boarded the yacht Granma in Mexico, only 12 made it to the Sierra Maestra mountains to launch the revolution.
What had appeared to be a mere nuisance, to be ignored or easily eliminated, marched into Havana in triumph two years later.
It has been a mistake, ever since, to leave Fidel for dead.
History of resiliency
In 1985, on the advice of doctors, he gave up his trademark Cohiba, the famous Cuban cigar that had been designed for him.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Cuban revolution was widely anticipated to be the next domino to fall, and its future was measured in months.
Castro was forced to overcome his constitutional antipathy to market forces and introduce limited private enterprise.
After his own fall, at the end of a speech in 2006, and the onset of severe gastrointestinal problems, he eventually surrendered the presidency to his brother, Raul Castro.
He was given months to live, and periodic rumors of his death have sent Miami into paroxysms of celebration.
The latest report is that Fidel Castro has requested that a special session of the National Assembly be convened to address matters of international urgency.
This Lazarus-like return to the political limelight will be less dramatic than his entry into Havana at the head of the rebel army, but no less triumphant.
“It … will require a thorough revision of expectations about Cuba’s future development.”
It is yet another victory over assumptions about his longevity, and will require a thorough revision of expectations about Cuba’s future development.
It may also explain Raul Castro’s mysterious silence during the July 26 celebrations, which have always culminated in a speech from the president.
In line with the scheme laid out by Vladimir Lenin, in which revolutions are led by a vanguard party, political power in Cuba resides with the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.
Of all the things he gave up, Fidel Castro held on to the position of first secretary of the party; even throughout his four year convalescence.
His authority over his younger brother is not merely personal or historic, but legal and constitutional.
It remains to be seen how they will negotiate the sharing of power, and how this will affect the reforms that Raul has announced.
Brothers in revolution
They have a shared hostility toward the bureaucracy that is one the less celebrated accomplishments of the revolution.
Yet Fidel never managed to translate this hostility into a programme for reform, as has his younger brother.
Rather than introducing changes, in his waning years in power Fidel fought an acrimonious battle by proxy; through the creation of an unpopular cadre of young ideologues, who harassed and spied on state workers.
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Raul Castro has made it clear that the very survival of the revolution depends on their ability to overcome bureaucratic inertia and make their system more efficient. He has been laying out a plan to achieve this, and, more critically, removing barriers to foreign investment.
This was undoubtedly the strategic goal of his recent dramatic announcement about the release of political prisoners, to which Spain responded in kind, by committing to push for a change in the European Union towards limited engagement with Cuba.
However, in his own speech before the National Assembly last Sunday, Raul reaffirmed his commitment to the Cuban economic model, and appeared to remove one point of potential conflict with his brother.
The drive for efficiency will not necessarily include the wholesale introduction of market forces. Raul has long been alleged to be an admirer of the Chinese model, but, as a military man, it seems the efficiency of the Cuban army is more his inspiration.
Fidel’s new role
For the time being, Fidel has not interfered, and his reasons for calling the special session may offer a clue as to the future division of labour.
In 1959, it was social justice that motivated his drive to Havana. The cause for his return to politics 51 years later is more apocalyptic.
Fidel will address the National Assembly on his concerns for a likely nuclear war involving the US, Iran and Israel and will reveal the foundations for his anxiety.
Thus, it may be that while Fidel worries about the future of the world, Raul will stay focused on the immediate problems facing Cuban society, and how to resolve them.
The older brother will take an international perspective, ceding the domestic sphere to his younger brother.
If such a scheme is in play, it will be interesting to see how long it lasts.
Fidel has never been a hands-off manager. He has famously stayed up late at night, turning himself into an expert on a range of subjects, from cattle breeding to city planning.
The results have not always been positive.
The healthier and stronger he feels, the more natural it will seem to be back in his traditional role at the center of Cuban politics, and the temptation to get his hands on the central project of social reform will be insurmountable.
It could be a awhile yet before Raul Castro emerges from the long shadow of his older brother, and Cuba from the historic leader of the revolution.