As CastroTurns 83, Cuba Caught Between Past, Future

(IFCO/Pastors for Peace)
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro turns 83 Thursday, his birthday defying all predictions of his death. Those predictions escalated in frequency and frenzy following his collapse and intestinal surgery at the end of July 2006.

At exactly midnight, Cuban television interrupted all programming to put on a three-minute photo and video montage of Castro's life, accompanied by patriotic music. Included was a photo from the chest up - said to have been taken this month by one of his sons, Alex Castro - in which he looks quite fit. The photo was also on display among dozens of others of Castro going back to a 1955 shot of him in Central Park, Manhattan. They are part of an exhibit inaugurated in Havana Wednesday evening to honor the bigger-than-life revolutionary.

Also Wednesday, the U.S.-based religious group Pastors for Peace - an anti-embargo organization - released several photos on their Web site of Castro taken, they said, just 13 days ago. Several members of the group, including Harlem Rev. Lucius Walker met with Castro on August 1 in Havana. In the waist-up photo (seen above), Castro, wearing a blue baseball cap and a white windbreaker with blue trim, is standing with his arms around his American visitors, wearing a grin and appearing more robust than in earlier photos.

Castro forwent running for president in February 2008, effectively ceding that post to his younger - but not by much - brother Raul, 76. Nevertheless, he retains the powerful post of General Secretary of the Communist Party - the highest power according to the Constitution. And since the Cuban leadership is composed of people wearing many hats simultaneously - government, Communist Party and military - Fidel Castro is still is the controlling figure. Although his frequent Internet postings focus mainly on international issues and it's thought that he has turned over the day-to-day running of the nation to Raul Castro, informed sources say all major decisions are run past him before being implemented. President Castro, himself, has said as much, even noting on one occasion that the semi-retired leader had signed off on the contents of his speech to parliament.

It is to be imagined that he would heartedly approve of recent measures to raise the retirement age in Cuba both because of necessity - the island, like many other countries has a rapidly aging population and a declining birth rate, as well as the emigration of many young people - and because it's the lifestyle he has chosen for himself. Whether Castro's insistence on remaining active is due to a desire to cling to power, as many in Miami claim, or due to the fact that he thrives when working is not relevant. It has long been clear that he would not retire to cultivate roses but, as he put it repeatedly, "die with his boots on".

Yet one imagines that some changes occurring in Cuban society over the past 18 years are hard for him to swallow. The younger generations, those born in the 1980s or later, do not remember life before the collapse of the European socialist camp and the end to the heavy subsidies from the former Soviet Union. In fact, many young people don't even remember this existence of the USSR. Therefore, their perspectives on the Revolution (always written with a capital R here) and what they want from life are, in general, very different from the aging generation that experienced the first heady years and participated in many of Castro's projects to bring health care and education to every corner of the island. The late Marjorie Moore, an American wed to a Cuban, who took part in the 1961 literacy campaign, told me it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of her life.

Now, with the economy tanking, young people (and many of their parents) are more apt to grumble about shortages. And as a highly educated class, they tend not to envision themselves working in the fields despite the very real need to increase agricultural production and replace imported foods—currently some 60 percent of the food supply.

Clearly Castro is depending on his brother Raul to salvage the situation even if it means restructuring the economy and the two seem to be on the same page as to what their end goals are. Raul Castro told parliament at the beginning of this month that he had not been elected president to restore capitalism in Cuba nor to hand over the revolution.

"I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism, not destroy it," he said.

No doubt that is what Fidel Castro wishes for as he blows out the candles on his birthday cake.

Portia Siegelbaum is a CBS News producer reporting from Havana, Cuba.

  • Portia Siegelbaum

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