Fidel Castro Turns 84: Still a Powerful Force in Cuba

Fidel Castro marks his 84th birthday on Friday after a spate of public appearances and apocalyptic warnings of nuclear war and environmental disaster that have catapulted him back onto center stage in Cuba and garnered him headlines outside the Communist-run Caribbean island.

The Cuban public, by and large, has welcomed their Commandante back after four years of seclusion with the warmth and sympathy one might bestow on an ailing, but wise grandfather home after a prolonged hospital stay, but in no position any longer to play head of the household.

"I think Fidel is acting intelligently, like he always has," Gladis Ulloa said in a telephone interview from Eastern Santiago de Cuba. "He has an important role to play by alerting the world to tragedies ahead while (his brother, President Raul Castro) governs. I do not believe that one role contradicts the other," the state worker said.

Other Cubans, particularly young people in Havana, shrug Castro off as they enjoy their summer vacation. And some opponents heap scorn upon him.

"The stuttering old man with quivering hands was a shadow of the Greek-profiled military leader who, while a million voices chanted his name in the plaza, pardoned lives, announced executions, proclaimed laws that no one had been consulted on and declared the right of revolutionaries to make revolution," wrote dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez in the Washington Post.

Cubans, with their wry sense of humour, have not spared the man that dominated the country for half a century.

As one joke making the rounds has it, Castro is lying on his death bed with his brother Raul at his side and Cubans at the window chanting, " Fidel, Fidel."

"What are those people doing outside?" Fidel asks.

"Saying farewell," Raul responds.

"Oh, where are they all going?" asks Fidel.

For the last six weeks, foreign diplomats and experts have scratched their heads as state media broadcast reports on Fidel's emergence from seclusion to preach his dire views on the "twin tragedies" of war and the environment facing humanity.

Castro stepped aside in 2006 to undergo intestinal surgery and then suffered complications, forcing him to resign the presidency two years later in favour of his brother Raul, who is 79. Since then, while he retained his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party the elder Castro had only met with occasional guests at his home, written essays and appeared sporadically in photographs and video clips.

In contrast, on Saturday images of a relatively healthy and lucid Castro dressed in military olive green, flashed across television screens the world over when he delivered a short televised speech before the National Assembly, the diplomatic corps and foreign journalists. He then took questions for an hour.

Fideal Castro's Re-Emergence Puzzles Diplomats

In his address, Castro called on President Barack Obama not to inspect Iranian cargo ships beginning in September, as called for in United Nations sanctions aimed at controlling that country's nuclear activities. Castro predicted Iran would respond by sinking the U.S. fleet, sparking a nuclear war.

Speculation over who is calling the shots in secretive Havana has raged among foreign experts and government officials.

"My role is to say what is happening so that others can decide what to do. You have to understand that the comrades (in the government) are not people I can lead by the finger or hand. What I want is that they think things over," Castro said of his current activities during a Sunday TV interview with Venezuela's Telesur.

A Communist party insider said Castro was strengthening his brother's government at a difficult moment.

"Fidel's presence has two objectives: to back Raul's efforts to modernize the economy by showing he is still very much around and therefore approves, and to counter the negative international media coverage we received over human rights this year by shifting attention to the United State's two soft spots, war and the environment," he said.

Raul Castro's efforts to loosen the state's grip on the economy has met stiff bureaucratic resistance. And his government suffered foreign condemnation earlier this year following the death of an imprisoned dissident after a long hunger strike. In a deal last month with the Roman Catholic Church, the government agreed to release 52 political prisoners.

Most observers agree Fidel Castro is in no condition to govern any longer and they note he has not spoken or written about domestic affairs in 18 months. But they disagree on whether this means he supports or opposes Raul Castro's efforts to foster more public discussion and allow more private initiative.

"History indicates that Fidel Castro remains very much in command, that no key decision will be adopted without his consent, slowing down the much needed structural reforms and conceptual changes started by his brother," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who defected in the early 1990s and now teaches in Florida.

Bert Hoffmann, Senior Research Fellow for Latin American studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies expressed a different view.

"Fidel's staged performances do not signal his return to power. Instead, his remarks on international issues rather underscore his backing for Raúl's policies. From leader, Fidel has transformed into legitimator," he said.