HAVANA -- Amid all the history-making in the Cuban capital this week, there is one landmark event that will not take place. Both Cuban and U.S. officials have made clear there will be no meeting between President Obama and former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“Neither we nor the Cubans have pursued such a meeting,” Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters last week. Obama, he said, “will be meeting with Raúl Castro as President of Cuba. That’s the appropriate government-to-government engagement, and so that’s what he’ll be pursuing.”
Assuming Fidel Castro — for decades the international embodiment of anti-Yanqui anti-imperialism —even wanted to meet with Obama, it would be bad optics for the administration. The White House sees the visit as the pinnacle of Obama’s forward-looking policy of international engagement. Raúl Castro, who grinned and gripped Obama’s hand when they met Monday, is the face for U.S. normalization with Cuba.
Not that his elder brother — who stepped down temporarily due to illness in 2006 and formally relinquished the presidency to Raul in 2008 — has completely disappeared. Until last year, articles titled “Reflections from Fidel,” were regularly published under his byline in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.
French President François Hollande, the first European head of state to visit here since the 1980s, met with Fidel at Castro’s private home last May. Pope Francis held a private session with Fidel during a trip to Havana in September.
Just last week, he received Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has assumed the role of most publicly anti-American Latin leader, and whose aircraft took off from an official visit to Havana last Friday, less than 24 hours before Obama arrived.
Although Fidel remains a near-mythic figure here, and Cuban officials made frequent reference to him as revolution’s founder and guide revolution, Cuba does not promote a visual cult of personality. His youthful face appears only on rare and random billboards around the country that exhort revolutionary fervor.
Approaching his 90th birthday in August, he has not appeared in public for some time. Photographs with Maduro, posted Saturday on Granma’s website, showed a frail, wheelchair-bound octogenarian, dressed in a track suit; his legendary beard a wispy grey.