Fidel Castro has been drawing international headlines for a defiant article (link in Spanish) he wrote criticizing president Barack Obama shortly after his recent visit to Cuba. But his fiery rhetoric can also be seen as a sign of just how much his influence has waned.
Even as Castro denounced the multi-billion-dollar earnings of the foreign tourism industry in his piece, Cuba—under the leadership of his brother, Raúl Castro—has agreed to reestablish commercial flights between the US and the island, and recently welcomed Starwood Hotels. Granma, the official newspaper that published Fidel’s editorial, has been replaced by many Cubans with the paquete semanal, a compilation of news and entertainment from abroad, circulated via USB.
Fidel’s tirade evidently didn’t destabilize Raúl’s efforts; indeed, seemed designed not to. As one Cuba expert told the New York Times (paywall), “The timing of the editorial—coming after the visit, during which Fidel was neither seen nor heard—signals an effort to do minimal harm to his brother’s rapprochement with the US.”
A clue to Fidel’s reduced circumstances is that Obama is now more popular in the island than either of the Castro brothers, according to a March 2015 survey commissioned by several US media outlets. Some 80% of respondents had a very or somewhat positive view of the American president, compared with 47% who felt the same way about Raúl Castro. Just 44% of those polled had a positive opinion of Fidel, and half had a negative one.
Average Cubans, particularly those under 50, are eager to normalize their country’s ties to the US, Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at University of California San Diego, told Quartz. “They want to enthusiastically embrace Obama’s vision,” he said.
Not that Fidel, who continues to refer to the US as “the empire,” has become entirely irrelevant. His views represent hardliners within Cuban government and society who don’t want to see the social gains from the Revolution eroded, said Marc Hanson, senior associate for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America. The opposing factions are going to fight it out next month at the Seventh Communist Party Congress, a key policy-making meeting.
Had Fidel not written the op-ed, Hanson tells Quartz, it would have been much easier to predict that significant changes would come out of the congress. Now it’s more of an open question.
In the end, neither Obama nor the Castros will have the most influence on US-Cuba relations in the next few years, but the US Congress. It’s up to lawmakers to decide whether to lift the five-decade-long US embargo on the island, which remains Cubans’ biggest qualm with America.
“They have welcomed some of the changes,” Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, told Quartz. “But what they really want is the embargo to be lifted.”