Speculation is the name of the game when it comes to Cuba's secretive internal affairs. And no issue has garnered more wagers than the health of Fidel Castro, who temporarily stepped down as leader in 2006 due to illness and ceded permanent control to his younger brother Raúl Castro in 2008.
Was Mr. Castro on his deathbed four years ago? What would his passing mean for Cuba? Is his reemergence on the public stage this summer, with a sudden flurry of speeches and impromptu appearances, a sign that he is back in power?
A 2007 cable apparently penned by Michael Palmry, then the top US diplomat to Cuba, said that Mr. Castro did almost die in 2006, on an airplane, when he suffered a perforated intestine. After the incident, an unnamed doctor offered the following prognosis: “He won’t die immediately, but he will progressively lose his faculties and become ever more debilitated until he dies.”
So far, however, that does not seem to be the case for the US Cold War enemy who recently praised WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for bringing the US “morally to its knees.” Predictions on Castro's health have, to his foes, been disappointingly exaggerated, even though his longterm health will probably have little sway over the direction of Cuba, according to US diplomats' assessments in other leaked documents.
A 2009 cable from the US Interests Section, published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais but not yet uploaded to the WikiLeaks website, quotes a US diplomat as saying that Cubans’ “generally conservative nature after 50 years of repression, combined with still significant admiration for Fidel personally, argue against short term disturbances.”
The cable was reportedly written by Mr. Palmry's successor, Jonathan Farrar. He goes on to say that Fidel’s death would prompt the Cuban establishment to takes steps to ensure that Raul Castro remains in charge.
“GOC [Government of Cuba] officials would most likely manage the death announcement and subsequent funeral arrangements, etc., in great detail with a view toward putting the best face on the situation, both domestically and to the world,” he wrote. "Utmost care will be given to ensuring that the Cuban public understands that Raúl and the rest of the GOC remain in firm control.”
WikiLeaks' revelations come as Cuba is undergoing a radical shift in policy – regardless of whether Fidel has full recovered or not. As the Monitor detailed in a November cover story, plans by Raúl Castro to lay off 500,000 workers by the spring to buoy the ailing economy – offering them a chance to set up new cooperatives and privately-run enterprises – has Cubans grappling with rapid change.
Some Cubans are thrilled. Others are scared. The changes, however, seem inevitable.
Yet another leaked bit of information by Assange’s organization earlier this month, cites Italian diplomats saying earlier this year that Cuba may “become insolvent as early as 2011.”