When Raúl Castro became president of Cuba in 2006, he raised hopes, at home and abroad, that he would usher in a new era of reform. His brother, El Comandante Fidel, was struck with some sort of intestinal illness and rendered incapable of governing. So in stepped Raúl with promises to undertake "structural" change in the country. He distributed parcels of idle land to farmers. He encouraged young people, many of whom feel restive about their country's system, to "fearlessly debate" the country's problems. He decreed that Cubans could finally buy cell phones and computers, and could stay at tourist hotels that had previously been off-limits to them. When it came to relations with the United States, he said last April, "We are prepared to discuss everything—human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners—everything, everything, everything."
But over the past year, some prominent Cuba analysts say, Fidel has steadily reasserted his authority and applied the brakes to these efforts. Despite his convalescence far from public view, Fidel is once again the arbiter on all critical matters facing the state, says Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and now a senior research associate at the University of Miami. "I think Fidel decided that Raúl was going too far, that Raúl was playing with fire," he says. As evidence, Latell points to recent shuffling of the leadership ranks that he considers an affront to Raúl and to Fidel's backsliding commentary in more than 100 "Reflections" he has published in the Cuban press during the past year. Any hope of warmer relations with the U.S. has been dashed, says Latell. "I don't see any progress possible in the foreseeable future."
It seemed at first like Fidel had relinquished control when his intestinal disease laid him up three and a half years ago. "He was gravely ill" between the summer of 2006 and the spring of 2007, says Andy Gomez of the University of Miami. He stopped showing up in public, stopped running government meetings, and appeared to yield the reins to Raúl. Yet in the past year, "there's no question that Fidel's condition has improved," says Gomez. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva reported that Fidel was "exceptionally well" after visiting him in Havana last month. Since Fidel's condition remains a state secret, analysts can only read tea leaves. But other indicators suggest he is back, and he's not pleased.
On the domestic front, Cuba observers say, Fidel has blocked the fundamental economic reforms necessary to lift the country out of its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "It's pretty clear that Raúl Castro is much more open to economic liberalization than Fidel Castro," says Philip Peters, a Cuba specialist at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. As Latell describes in his book After Fidel,Raúl pushed for market reforms in the 1990s and was impressed with the Chinese economic model. Now that he is ostensibly in power, though, he has been unable to deliver the same changes—more opportunities for private enterprise, an elimination of the dual-currency system (which involves regular pesos for routine purchases and dollar-pegged "convertible pesos" for imported goods)—that he is thought to want for his country and that many Cubans had hoped for. The regime's recent crackdown on dissidents, activists, and bloggers also bears Fidel's fingerprints, says Latell. After Raúl's very public commitments to reform, it's unlikely he would willingly retreat so much back to the vision Fidel was known to hold.
Fidel has also ensured that tensions with the U.S. remain high. Only days after Raúl asserted that "everything" was on the negotiating table, Fidel wrote in a "Reflection" that his brother had been "misinterpreted." He then offered this clarification: "When the President of Cuba said he was ready to discuss any topic with the U.S. president, he meant he was not afraid of addressing any issue. That shows his courage and confidence in the principles of the Revolution." (This was widely interpreted, including in Foggy Bottom, as a reprimand.) Then in December, the Cuban government arrested an American contractor, Alan Gross, who was delivering communications equipment to Jewish groups on the island. He's being held without charges—an act that seems designed to provoke the United States. "We have seen this MO many times," says Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, which advocates greater American engagement with the island. "The U.S.A. softens, Cuba hardens. It seems to be a repeat of Fidel's playbook." Fidel unleashed the Mariel boatlift just as Jimmy Carter was trying to engage Cuba, and he shot down unarmed airplanes belonging to an anti-Castro group in Miami just as Bill Clinton was trying the same.
Fidel—who relinquished his titles as head of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, but remains leader of the Communist Party—still has taken no additional government post since his return fitness. But he has made leadership changes that some analysts suspect are aimed at preserving his vision of the revolution. Key among them is the promotion of Ramiro Valdés, a former Interior minister regarded as a diehard Fidel loyalist and a brutal enforcer. Despite a history of strained relations with Raúl, Valdés is now effectively the No. 3 man in the regime after the Castro brothers. "That was a Fidel appointment," says Gomez. Valdés "is Fidel's eyes and ears on a daily basis within the inner circle."
The Comandante won't be around forever, of course. However improved his health, it can't be that great, considering his continued seclusion. But as long as Fidel is calling the shots, the Cuban economy will remain unproductive, the youth will remain restive, and relations with the U.S. will remain at an impasse. "Nothing is going to happen while Fidel is alive," says Gomez. Which leaves everyone, on and off the island, pretty much where they were three and a half years ago: waiting for Fidel to die.