Is Fidel Castro Still in the Cuban Military?

No, but he's still in charge.

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Cuba's seemingly revived former president, Fidel Castro, has been on something of a media blitz lately. He criticized Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a bizarre interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that also included a trip to see a dolphin show and an introduction to Che Guevara's daughter (the aquarium's veterinarian); he accused the CIA of sponsoring Osama bin Laden; and he hosted a five-hour meeting with protégé Hugo Chávez, who described the 84-year-old revolutionary as being in "magnificent" health. Perhaps most significantly for Cuba watchers, at a recent speech, Castro eschewed the Adidas tracksuits he has lately been favoring and dusted off the full military uniform that he famously wore while in power. Moreover, Castro was introduced at the event as comandante en jefe rather than the less formal compañero. Does this mean than Castro is back in charge of Cuba's military?

No. When Castro stepped down as president in 2008, he also gave up his position as commander in chief of the Cuban military to his brother, Raúl, after undergoing treatment for an undisclosed disease, likely diverticulitis. The uniform that Castro wore last week, notably, did not feature the insignia indicating rank that he wore while in office. As for the title, Castro is still commonly referred to as "commander in chief of the revolution," an honorific title that he was first given during the 1959 revolution.

But that doesn't mean that his role is purely ceremonial. Even after leaving the presidency, Castro never stepped down as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. According to Cuba's Constitution, the party is the "highest leading force of society and of the state." In Marxist-Leninist political systems like Cuba's, the leader of the party is the country's highest leader, with authority over civilian and military institutions. Soviet leaders from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev all governed as party secretaries. Castro, in fact, wasn't even given the title of president until a constitutional overhaul in 1976.

Cuba’s seemingly revived former president, Fidel Castro, has been on something of a media blitz lately. He criticized Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a bizarre interview with the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg that also included a trip to see a dolphin show and an introduction to Che Guevara’s daughter (the aquarium’s veterinarian); he accused the CIA of sponsoring Osama bin Laden; and he hosted a five-hour meeting with protégé Hugo Chávez, who described the 84-year-old revolutionary as being in "magnificent" health. Perhaps most significantly for Cuba watchers, at a recent speech, Castro eschewed the Adidas tracksuits he has lately been favoring and dusted off the full military uniform that he famously wore while in power. Moreover, Castro was introduced at the event as comandante en jefe rather than the less formal compañero. Does this mean than Castro is back in charge of Cuba’s military?

No. When Castro stepped down as president in 2008, he also gave up his position as commander in chief of the Cuban military to his brother, Raúl, after undergoing treatment for an undisclosed disease, likely diverticulitis. The uniform that Castro wore last week, notably, did not feature the insignia indicating rank that he wore while in office. As for the title, Castro is still commonly referred to as "commander in chief of the revolution," an honorific title that he was first given during the 1959 revolution.

But that doesn’t mean that his role is purely ceremonial. Even after leaving the presidency, Castro never stepped down as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. According to Cuba’s Constitution, the party is the "highest leading force of society and of the state." In Marxist-Leninist political systems like Cuba’s, the leader of the party is the country’s highest leader, with authority over civilian and military institutions. Soviet leaders from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev all governed as party secretaries. Castro, in fact, wasn’t even given the title of president until a constitutional overhaul in 1976.

Theoretically, this means that Castro has the authority to demote his brother or other top officials and reinstall himself as Cuba’s head of state and military commanders. Although mostly commenting on public events through speeches and newspaper column, Castro does seem to take a more active political role from time to time. He claims to have personally chosen members of his brother’s cabinet, for instance.

Despite Castro’s recent burst of activity, most Cuba watchers think he is unlikely to retake his old job.The octogenarian seems to be trying to reinvent himself as an international elder statesman and is content to let his brother handle the affairs of state. All the same, as long as Compañero Fidel is formally in charge of the party, Raúl might still want to run things by him.

Thanks to Jaime Suchlicki, professor of history at the University of Miami.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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