Fidel Castro is back. Four years after disappearing from view following an illness that nearly killed him, the former Cuban president – who remains the head of the country’s Communist party – has returned to public life, giving speeches, leading rallies and even attending a dolphin show. Fidel’s return, at a time when his brother and successor, Raúl, is pushing through the most dramatic economic reforms in Cuba in 40 years, has prompted speculation that the two Castro brothers are at war.
Raúl’s government last week announced that half a million state workers – one tenth of the country’s working population –would be sacked in the next six months. At the same time, it will relax rules on self-employment, in the hope that the tiny private sector will absorb the newly unemployed. In a huge shift towards a market-based economy, the self-employed will be allowed to employ others, and borrow money to expand their businesses.
Fidel has avoided talking about domestic issues, focusing instead on foreign affairs. The one slip up was at the dolphin show, which Fidel watched with American journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg. El Comandante allegedly told Goldberg that “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore”. Fidel promptly took the comment back, saying Goldberg missed the irony. It’s just possible the 84-year-old enjoyed the subsequent media furore that catapulted him back into the limelight.
Fidel’s silence on the reforms is being widely debated in Havana. “By making no mention of domestic politics is he deliberately trying not to undermine his brother’s authority, or is his presence giving weight to hard-liners who are opposed to the changes currently underway?” wondered Michael Voss, the BBC’s Cuba correspondent.
Cubans say Fidel is violently opposed to the reforms and there is a rift at the very top of government. Adding fuel to the speculation, the two brothers barely acknowledged each other when they appeared in parliament together.
The welcome Fidel has received on his return shows he commands much more popular support than Raúl. But the younger brother has had four years to build a government that he trusts. Commentators say that, unlike Fidel, he needs consensus to do anything dramatic, and so is thought to have solid backing for the recent reforms.
If Raúl can consolidate his position at the Communist Party Congress, expected to be held next year, it will be clear he has overcome any remaining obstacles to reform. Meanwhile, the fireworks will stay behind closed doors, as both Castro brothers know a public spat would weaken their grip on power.