Sign Up

Cuba’s Raging Bull

Is Fidel Castro losing his grip on reality and his ability to govern the affairs of Cuba?

April 10, 2006

Is Fidel Castro losing his grip on reality and his ability to govern the affairs of Cuba?

If that great champion of American social justice Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for his fireside chats, Fidel Castro the Cuban revolutionary might well end up being remembered as the eternal rhetorical flame.

Love him or hate him, this is a man who cannot stop talking, even as he turns 80 this year and increasingly looks and sounds every year of his age.

During a single week when I was in Cuba recently, Castro appeared on Cuban television no less than four times, speaking on each occasion for some two hours.

True, one speech was a repeat from the night before — for those who might have missed it — but this was countered the next day by an early morning discourse urging Cubans to participate in a protest march against the United States.

The evening speeches preempted all prime-time programming, prompting some viewers to exercise the only option available. "When Fidel comes on," remarked a 22-year old medical student, "the TVs go off."

To watch and listen to Castro several nights running during the 47th year of his socialist revolution is quite a different experience from indulging one of his sharp-tongued sound bites that makes its way into the foreign press.

He started the week with a broadcast from Pinar del Río province celebrating advances there in electricity generation. Simple enough, but for aficionados of Castro’s renowned dialectic skills, if nothing else, watching the one-time champ stumble through a speech about megawatts and kilowatts was like watching an old boxer lose to a punk whom he would have knocked out in his prime.

Fidel fumbled through his notes and furiously scribbled figures to add up costs on the spot — not always correctly.

Adorned as he was for every speech during the week in his legendary military fatigues, he scratched obsessively under his clothes at the shoulder that was in a cast after a fall in 2004.

The image was less that of an imposing revolutionary as it was of an old man struggling mightily — and understandably, as many sympathetic Cubans were quick to point out — to grasp the complexities of the energy sector.

Of course, the head of state is more or less obliged to be such an expert when the government runs every aspect of the economy, often badly.

In a country with a reported growth rate in 2005 of 11.8% — a figure so dubious that the United Nations omitted Cuba from its annual economic report — university professors drive taxis and economists clean apartments that lodge tourists in order to gain access to foreign exchange.

As they have for decades, Cubans obtain food staples such as beans and rice using government-issued ration coupons.

Castro’s speech that Thursday, billed as a seminal discussion on "the year of the energy revolution," had to be postponed — because of widespread electrical blackouts across Havana. (There was no mention of the blackouts in Granma, the state-run newspaper, but the television news blamed them on condensation in the aging transmission system.)

The format for the rescheduled appearance the next night was said to be a "roundtable." However, except for Fidel the only other person at the table was a "moderator" staring at a laptop computer.

He could best be described as the revolution’s Ed MacMahon, the prototypical sidekick. His principal tasks seemed to be a timely chortle, an affirmative nod — or a gentle correction about a date or figure.

Back to the boxing analogy, Castro again appeared to be simply wandering around the ring, often repeating himself.

Occasionally, someone in the audience with a notepad would offer up a few words of technical assistance. But no one at ringside at any point asked a question, much less one that might suggest it’s time for the old man to consider hanging up the rhetorical gloves.

A Sunday speech focused on the island’s drumbeat of current events, including the saga of the cinco héroes, Cubans imprisoned in the United States for espionage; the U.S. government’s refusal to extradite an exile accused of bombing a Cuban airliner 30 years ago; and an electronic ticker tape installed by the U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana that flashes international news and human rights statements.

Many Cubans find it impossible to believe that the vast majority of Americans know almost nothing about any of this. One might have thought that counter-punching such politically-oriented jabs would be better suited for Fidel, the boxer of old.

But in the same raspy voice as his other speeches, and with the laptop man chortling again at his side, a rather haggard-looking president for the most part read — in painstaking, chronological order — a seemingly endless array of news dispatches supposedly confirming such Quixotic allegations as one that groups involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy are the same that now want to kill Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Castro mangled Anglo-Saxon names, jokingly apologized, and spit out the occasional obscenity, either when he lost his place—¡ay carajo!—or when he got especially wound up, as when he said of his enemies in the United States, no somos mierda como ellos.

The next morning hundreds of thousands of Cubans indeed joined a state-sponsored march through the streets of Havana to protest U.S. policies.

Many participants from schools, government offices and labor groups were required to march — the medical students, for example — so it is difficult to measure the extent to which the event reflected support for Castro.

However, even Cubans who fervently admire their president for standing up to the United States increasingly cringe at his meandering discourses and his obsession to project himself as an expert on every topic of governance.

There is widespread discontent about the overly centralized and inefficient economy and the government’s obstinate refusal to allow more private enterprise.

And yet, as Fidel Castro ages and rages, as he stumbles, as he rambles, it is common to find Cubans who, rightly or wrongly, feel sorry for him. "No president in the world works so hard, but he needs to delegate more," lamented a retired engineer.

When another Cuban professional complained about the island’s frequent blackouts, his son just back from elementary school countered plaintively: "It’s not Fidel’s fault! It’s the people around him."

He must not have seen the roundtable.

David Einhorn was in Cuba on assignment for the National Catholic Reporter. This article was reprinted with their permission. You can read more of his series of articles on Cuba on the National Catholic Reporter website.