Fidel’s fade-out

Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington" and "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" and serves on the Brookings Institution's Cuba Study Project.

On July 27, 2006, Fidel Castro nearly died during emergency intestinal surgery to stem internal bleeding caused by chronic diverticulitis. Since then, Cuba-watchers and obituary writers have been on high alert awaiting his demise.

Yet, more than three years later, Castro soldiers on, approaching his mortal end with the same zeal he lavished on his life. The 83-year-old appears to have adjusted to his medically mandated retirement, enduring various surgeries and their attendant complications. A state-of-the art convalescent suite has been installed in his principal residence, Punto Cero, where he is surrounded by family and Cuba’s finest doctors. On his good days, he entertains well-wishers -- among them, Harry Belafonte and Oliver Stone. And he continues to intervene in the thorny politics of Cuba.

In 2007, while still hospitalized, Castro began a transition from being Cuba’s commander in chief to its pundit in chief, penning columns he calls “Reflections” in the state-run newspaper, Granma. Late last year, he offered some personal introspection. “I have had the rare privilege of observing events for a very long time,” he wrote. He then acknowledged the gravity of his illness. “I do not expect I shall enjoy such a privilege four years from now -- when President Obama’s first term has concluded.”


But until Castro is in the grave, we will be hearing from him. While his brother Raul and the Cuban army are running the day-to-day affairs of the country, Castro retains and exercises veto power. And Cubans continue to feel the strongman’s sting.

In March, more than a dozen of the most senior members of the Cuban regime were purged from the government. While Raul Castro had initiated the internal coup, Fidel was quick to weigh in and assail its casualties, all former members of his inner circle. The men had succumbed to “the honey of power,” he wrote in his column. Their replacements have dodged the limelight and tread far more carefully.

Castro’s reluctant leave-taking -- with its periodic near-finales -- fits into a long tradition of Hispanic caudillos or dictators. Consider, for example, the life -- and death -- of Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator of almost 40 years. Both Castro’s father and Franco hailed from the rugged northern countryside of Spain, a region renowned for its fierce and stubborn citizenry. And notwithstanding divergent political ideologies -- Franco was a zealous anti-communist -- the two men had a good deal in common. Both were willing to forge unpalatable and unpopular alliances with totalitarian states to shore up their power -- Franco with Nazi Germany and Castro with the Soviet Union.

And Franco’s shrouded last days neatly foreshadowed Castro’s. Franco became grievously ill in 1974 and was forced to turn over his rule -- “temporarily,” he insisted -- to Prince Juan Carlos. Castro also initially ceded control to his brother only “temporarily.” Like Castro, Franco had an unexpected recovery, though his lasted only a year before he died at the age of 82.

Although it is generally believed that Franco died days earlier, his death was announced on Nov. 20, 1975, the same day on which Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Franco’s fascist Falange party, died 40 years earlier.

Some assert doctors kept Franco alive under orders from the dictator that he would live until the ordained date. But Franco’s scheming to die with gravity and splendor backfired, and his protracted departure became a joke that would long outlive him. “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead,” Chevy Chase would intone with mock solemnity on “Saturday Night Live” as a running gag for nearly two years.

Castro’s long goodbye is proving equally irresistible for late-night comedians. “He ran Cuba for almost 50 years,” began Jay Leno in one riff. “And political analysts are now debating what kind of changes the Cuban people will hope for. I’m gonna guess: term limits.”

Castro’s untidy leaving has also kept the news media in an indefinite state of high alert, as they formulate and reformulate coverage and obituaries. The veteran Spanish Civil War reporter Martha Gellhorn found herself in a similar pickle three decades ago. In 1975, she accepted an assignment from New York magazine to write about post-Franco Spain. “This thrills me, the sort of journalism I love,” she wrote her son. “I am waiting for the old swine to die; but obviously he is being kept breathing (no more) while the right tightens its hold on the country.”

When I asked Castro in a 1994 interview when he would retire, he snapped: “My vocation is the revolution. I am a revolutionary, and revolutionaries do not retire.”