The revolutionary leader told a visiting American journalist and a U.S.-Cuba policy expert that the island's state-dominated system is in need of change, a rare comment on domestic affairs from a man who has taken pains to steer clear of local issues since illness forced him to step down as president four years ago.
The fact that things are not working efficiently on this cash-strapped Caribbean island is hardly news. Fidel's brother Raul, the country's president, has said the same thing repeatedly. But the blunt assessment by the father of Cuba's 1959 revolution is sure to raise eyebrows.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, asked Castro if Cuba's economic system was still worth exporting to other countries, and Castro replied: "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore," Goldberg wrote Wednesday in a post on his Atlantic blog.
The Cuban government had no immediate comment on Goldberg's account.
Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations who accompanied Goldberg on the trip, confirmed the Cuban leader's comment, which he made at a private lunch last week.
She told The Associated Press she took the remark to be in line with Raul Castro's call for gradual but widespread reform.
"It sounded consistent with the general consensus in the country now, up to and including his brother's position," Sweig said.
In general, she said she found the 84-year-old Castro to be "relaxed, witty, conversational and quite accessible."
"He has a new lease on life, and he is taking advantage of it," Sweig said.
Castro stepped down temporarily in July 2006 due to a serious illness that nearly killed him.
He resigned permanently two years later, but remains head of the Communist Party. After staying almost entirely out of the spotlight for four years, he re-emerged in July and now speaks frequently about international affairs. He has been warning for weeks of the threat of a nuclear war over Iran.
But the ex-president has said very little about Cuba and its politics, perhaps to limit the perception he is stepping on his brother's toes.
Goldberg, who traveled to Cuba at Castro's invitation last week to discuss a recent Atlantic article he wrote about Iran's nuclear program, also reported on Tuesday that Castro questioned his own actions during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, including his recommendation to Soviet leaders that they use nuclear weapons against the United States.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has clung to its communist system.
The state controls well over 90 percent of the economy, paying workers salaries of about $20 a month in return for free health care and education, and nearly free transportation and housing. At least a portion of every citizen's food needs are sold to them through ration books at heavily subsidized prices.
Cuba says much of its suffering is caused by the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo. The economy has also been slammed by the global economic downturn, a drop in nickel prices and the fallout from three devastating hurricanes that hit in quick succession in 2008. Corruption and inefficiency have exacerbated problems.
As president, Raul Castro has instituted a series of limited economic reforms, and has warned Cubans that they need to start working harder and expecting less from the government. But the president has also made it clear he has no desire to depart from Cuba's socialist system or embrace capitalism.
Fidel Castro's interview with Goldberg is the only one he has given to an American journalist since he left office.