Can Fidel Castro still sway Cuba?

Fidel Castro debunked rumors he was dead in the state-run newspaper today. Some say that since he ceded control to brother Raul in 2006, US-Cuba relations are likely to remain unaltered when Fidel dies.

Alex Castro/Cubadebate/AP
This picture released by Cubadebate on its website early Monday Oct. 22, shows Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Habana, Cuba, Sunday, Oct. 21.

Thousands of words were penned over the past week on whether Cuba’s Fidel Castro had died.

The former and longtime head of Cuba himself lashed out today in a 546-word public letter in the state newspaper dismissing the rumors: “I don’t even remember what a headache feels like,” he writes. His byline is accompanied by photos of him in a red- and blue-checkered shirt and straw hat.

But one reader, commenting on a 774-word New York Times article about the Castro health rumor mill, summed it up in less than 20: "Who cares?” wrote “Mike" from Connecticut. “Whether Castro is alive or dead is irrelevant to the US and to Cuba.”

In many ways "Mike" has a point, and perhaps the most apt one.

Of course the death of Fidel Castro will be huge worldwide news. But politically, will it make a difference?

Most observers give a resounding “no.” Cubans are not going to take to the streets. They didn’t do so when Fidel Castro fell ill in the first place and temporarily ceded control to his brother Raul Castro in 2006, nor when he permanently handed over power two years later. That means Raul Castro will stay in power, and US relations with Cuba are likely to remain unaltered.

And change has already come under Raul Castro, most notably on the economic front, and especially in new permissions granted to Cubans to start their own businesses. And most recently last week Cuba dropped exit visa requirements for residents, a huge symbolic move for the island nation.

“Fidel is still alive and his tongue is still sharp, but the post-Fidel era has been with us for some years now,” writes Cuban expert Philip Peters today on his blog “The Cuban Triangle.”  

Even Fidel Castro seems to take note of that in his piece today, ending it by saying: “Surely it is not my role to occupy the pages of our press, which are dedicated to other tasks that our country requires.”

Still, history will not corroborate that sentiment when reviewing press coverage of October 2012. Twitter was ablaze with every detail of the rumor that he suffered a stroke, which was fueled in part by a Venezuelan doctor, who also predicted the imminent demise of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez earlier this year. (Mr. Chavez says he has recovered from his cancer, and just won another six-year-term in office in the oil-rich country, which is Cuba's most important ally today.) Editors around the globe dispatched reporters to keep an eye on the story, and dinner party conversations were dominated by Fidel Castro’s potential “demise.”

As Mr. Peter aptly notes in the first line of the blog: “Fidel has done it again, making news just by being alive.”

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