You’d think the time is ripe for some pomp and drama from Fidel Castro, as Cuba and the US plan a resumption of ties ending decades of enmity. But the aging ‘comandante,’ famous for fist-pounding speeches that went on for hours and hours, remains largely silent and out of view, leaving his fans flummoxed.
In fact, Thursday marks one year to the day since Castro’s last public appearance and the prolonged absence is fueling rumors about the health of the now retired 88-year-old leader of Cuba’s communist revolution. Castro has not spoken publicly about the bombshell announcement three weeks ago that the United States and Cuba plan to restore full diplomatic relations, ending a freeze of more than 50 years.
Nor did he attend a welcoming ceremony for three Cuban agents released by the United States as part of the deal to prepare for those normalized relations. Those agents are commonly referred to here as heroes. “I was very surprised that Fidel did not appear when the heroes arrived or speak about the restoration of relations with the United States,” Doraylis Jimenez, a 20-year-old dancer, told AFP.
“People say he is holed up in his house because his health is very frail,” she added. She said the government really should say something about Castro because people are concerned and rumors are swirling. Castro yielded the Cuban presidency to his brother Raul in July 2006, stepping aside after a prolonged period of poor health.
His last appearance in public was January 8, 2014 when he attended the opening of an art gallery owned by an old friend named Alexis Leyva, who goes by the name Kcho. In July, Castro held separate meetings in his Havana home with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since then he has only written occasionally in state run media in pieces he calls “reflections.” The last two came in October.
“Of course, we miss the commander. But only God knows how he is, if he is well, if he is sick or if he has died. I personally do not think he has left us, but it is rumored that he is very sick,” said Patricia Rigondeaux, a 42-year-old hairdresser. “I want to see him, for him to appear as he did in that feature” on the art gallery, she added. “You always want to see him and see him well, but Fidel is very old now.”
A Western diplomat said reconciliation between the United States and the release of the Cuban agents are a victory for Fidel but his poor health prevents him from appearing in public. “Fidel cannot appear but this is the culmination of diplomatic work in which he was involved. There is no doubt about that,” added Gabriel Molina, former editor in chief of the official newspaper Granma. The last account of Castro came from a poor family that was invited to his home — an honor usually reserved for foreign dignitaries.
The family’s eight-year-old son Marlon Mendez Cabrera collects photos of Castro, and wore Castro-style olive drab military fatigues during the two and a half hour visit. Castro wore a blue sports jacket and checked shirt and talked about a variety of things, especially his new hobby, which is growing an edible plant called moringa, the boy’s mother Wendy said.
“When Marlon said goodbye as a soldier would, Fidel also got up and saluted him like a soldier,” said the boy’s grandmother Maria Elvira Hernandez.