Dictator Without a Doubt

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dressed not in his green fatigues but in a white Adidas track suit with red and blue stripes, Fidel Castro posed for photographs -- apparently over the weekend, though it's hard to be sure -- holding up a copy of the official newspaper Granma to prove he had survived to his 80th birthday. "Absolved by History," said the front-page headline, and it was hard to read the phrase as anything but the perfect, almost inevitable, exit line.

Castro's first attempt at revolution was a raid on Santiago's Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953. Bad planning and amateurish execution led to failure, and Castro was captured and put on trial. Before going to prison, he gave a famous courtroom speech in which he made what seemed a hopelessly quixotic prediction: "History will absolve me."

So now, half a century later, an old man claims his absolution. The invocation of that historical touchstone would be enough by itself to suggest that Castro believes his era is at an end, but his birthday message to the Cuban people left even less room for doubt. He confronts a long and risky recovery, he wrote, and Cubans should be "optimistic and at the same time always ready to face any adverse news."

Hours after the photographs and message were published, Castro's brother and designated successor, Raúl, made his first public appearance as acting head of state, meeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the airport. Castro has been ailing for two weeks now, but Sunday felt like transition day.

Even if Castro survives this crisis, it is hard to imagine he could ever reclaim the unquestioned dominion he has exercised over Cuba for the past 47 years as leader, micromanager, theorist of revolution and ultimate authority on everything. As long as he remains alive, though, it is hard to imagine anyone, even his brother, taking Cuba in a new direction. All the hopes and fears invested in the advent of a post-Fidel era may have to be deferred.

For now, we can just examine the claim Castro made from his hospital room. Should that headline have read, "Absolved by Himself''?

One theory is that he's simply an old man who made a mistake a long time ago and is too stubborn to admit it. The mistake, of course, would be communism. My problem with this analysis is that it requires the old man to have at least the shadow of a doubt, and I don't think Castro does. I think he may be the last of the true believers.

I've been to Cuba nine times, and not even the dissidents believe that Castro has done a Baby Doc or a Mobutu and stashed millions abroad in numbered bank accounts. People who see him socially have told me he lives far better than most Cubans (which isn't saying much), but not at all lavishly. Forbes magazine claimed last year that Castro is worth $550 million, but it based that on the value of "state-owned assets Castro is assumed to control." I thought that was tendentious. Controlling state-owned companies isn't the same thing as robbing them.

I used to wonder why Castro, assuming he was never going to allow multiparty elections, didn't at least follow the Chinese leadership's example and open up the economy while retaining absolute political control. Despite the U.S. trade embargo, Cuba's moribund economy could have blossomed. But Castro reportedly was appalled by what he saw in modern China -- a growing gap between rich and poor. When the Cuban economy collapsed in the 1990s, Castro allowed just enough private enterprise so that people could survive. Once things got better, he took it all back.

It finally dawned on me that Fidel Castro likes Cuba the way it is, a glorious shambles with myriad inefficiencies and problems.

Reform-minded Cuban officials used to whisper to me that soon there would be a private market in real estate, but Fidel would never allow it. I think he likes a system in which everyone has a roof, though it's leaky, and surgeons live next to bricklayers in crumbling tenements.

Most Cubans aren't allowed to buy new cars, even if they have the money. I used to think this was just a method of control, but I came to believe that Castro probably smiles when he sees the fortunate few who do have cars stopping to pick up the hitchhikers who gather at almost every major intersection. The scene brings the communist ideal to life: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

The old man in the track suit made a mistake. But I think he'll die without ever believing that, let alone admitting it.

The writer will take questions at 1 p.m. today on www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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