The lead photo on the website of the Cuban state-run news organization Granma features Fidel Castro in a rare public appearance. He's still wearing track suits. But El Jefe will appear on television tonight on the nation's current affairs program, and the public will hear his voice for the first time in three years.
For those skeptical of Cuba's commitment to increasing its human rights record and path toward democracy, Mr. Castro, whose public appearances have been few and far between since he fell ill in 2006, is re-emerging as many are hoping that changes are underway in the island nation.
“It would be reasonable to think that Castro is dying and there might be change in the air,” says Ian Vasquez, the director of the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. “But his [appearance now] could be a signal to Cubans not to get high hopes. …. I think the more important message is: 'I am still around, do not get any fancy ideas.' ”
Castro has been photographed with regional leaders visiting the island, including a recent one by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but mostly he has stayed on the sidelines, only giving his opinions in the pages of Granma. Mr. Vasquez says his reemergence now is significant, underlining that he is still at the helm Cuba, he says.
Last Wednesday, Fidel Castro visited the National Center for Scientific Research in Havana. Photos of him talking with workers ran in Granma this morning. Less than a week later, he is expected this evening on a special program of The Round Table, according to Granma.
But the Cuban leader is not scheduled to address the major issue of the day – the prisoner release. Instead, he's expected to discuss the subject that he has devoted much of his opinions to since he temporarily, and later permanently, ceded control of Cuba to his younger brother Raul Castro: the Middle East. Specifically, he's been warning of an impending clash between the US and Iran.
“With everything going on now in Cuba, he is going to appear on television but to speak about the Middle East,” says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute. “Fidel Castro remains head of the Communist Party, which is a position of leadership … But at the same time, in his commentaries he is talking almost all time about history or foreign affairs, not about the issues in play in Cuba right now. He is not a shrinking violet, I do not believe it means he has no say or that he is not voicing his opinion about current affairs in Cuba. But he certainly is not doing it in public.”
In fact, his appearances could be overshadowed by the prisoner release that has dominated Cuba news since last week, after negotiations between the Cuban government, the Catholic Church, and the Spanish foreign ministry led to an agreement for the release of 52 political prisoners.
The release has been criticized by some, who have questioned whether the prisoners are being forced to leave Cuba or are going to Spain at their own will.
"While we are relieved for these prisoners and their families, the fact remains that scores of political prisoners locked up under Raul Castro continue to languish in Cuba's prisons," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement after news of the release. "So long as Cuba's draconian laws and sham trials remain in place, they will continue to restock the prison cells with new generations of innocent Cubans who dare to exercise their basic rights."
But it has also been seen as a positive move for Cuba´s work towards greater human rights record, including by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who called it last week a “positive sign.”