Fidel Castro Reasserts His Leadership

A still-convalescing Fidel Castro appeared to reassert his leadership over Cuba on Monday, issuing a "manifesto" to the Cuban people that emphasized defense preparedness, appeared to squash hopes of market reforms and dampened expectations of dramatic improvement in people's lives.

The long statement covering the entire front page of the Communist party newspaper, Granma, was Castro's first manifesto and comment on domestic issues since temporarily handing over power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, last July 31.

Castro, 80, has undergone a number of abdominal surgeries since then and hasn't appeared in public or in his trademark military uniform. Instead, he's been shown wearing a track suit when meeting visitors.

Castro has written numerous "reflections" on international issues in recent weeks as he held long meetings with Latin American allies Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, but hadn't addressed domestic issues since his illness sidelined him.

"From one year to the next the standard of living can be improved by raising knowledge, self-esteem and the dignity of people. It will be enough to reduce wastage and the economy will grow," Castro wrote on Monday, in apparent reference to an ongoing debate in the country over market reforms.

"This is Fidel weighing in with a general line to follow before next month's Communist Party Central Committee meeting and I doubt anyone will buck him even if he is not present," a Havana University professor said, asking not to be identified.

"With this latest pronouncement Fidel Castro appears to be publicly reinserting himself into the policy process, at least temporarily," said Brian Latell, former Castro watcher at the CIA and auther of the book "After Fidel."

"It is a militant and intransigent statement that blames the United States for most of Cuba's problems. And he may also have intended to draw a line in the sand indicating his opposition to any economic liberalization by his successors," he said.

As Cuba's interim leader, Raul Castro has fostered more criticism and discussion about the country's economic problems, raising expectations of change and improvement.

In an apparent attempt to dampen those expectations, Fidel Castro emphasized the U.S. threat and embargo and said the situation facing Cubans had markedly improved since the crisis of the 1990s thanks in part to Venezuela.

"The Venezuelan Bolivarian Revolution brought a significant relief and opened up new possibilities," Castro said, referring to oil shipments.

Castro painted a glum view of the situation outside Cuba's borders, citing the growing use of food for fuel and global warming. "Hunger and thirst, more violent hurricanes and the surge of the sea is what Tyranians and Trojans stand to suffer as the result of imperial policies," he said.

Castro on Monday insisted on the need to build up the country's defenses in the face of the Bush administration's hostility. "We shall continue acquiring the necessary materials and the pertinent firepower, even though the notorious Gross Domestic Product as measured by capitalism may not be growing," he said.

"Freedom costs dearly, and it is necessary to either resign ourselves to live without it or to decide to buy it for its price," he said, quoting national independence hero Jose Martí.

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