The Cable

Castro’s Appearance: A Message to Washington or Caracas?

The surprise public appearance of Fidel Castro in front of a visiting delegation of Venezuelans last Monday has triggered a wave of speculation about Havana’s intentions ahead of a critical summit of North, South, and Central American leaders this weekend.

Cuban workers display a portrait of Cuban former President Fidel Castro during May Day celebrations at Revolution Square in Havana on May 1, 2013. About half a million people across Cuba took part in May Day celebrations dedicated to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a close ally of the island's communist leaders. President Raul Castro, 81, reviewed a parade in Havana of some 300,000 people bearing banners and flags, from stands erected in the Plaza of the Revolution alongside a giant portrait of Chavez. AFP PHOTO/STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Cuban workers display a portrait of Cuban former President Fidel Castro during May Day celebrations at Revolution Square in Havana on May 1, 2013. About half a million people across Cuba took part in May Day celebrations dedicated to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a close ally of the island's communist leaders. President Raul Castro, 81, reviewed a parade in Havana of some 300,000 people bearing banners and flags, from stands erected in the Plaza of the Revolution alongside a giant portrait of Chavez. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The surprise public appearance of Fidel Castro in front of a visiting delegation of Venezuelans on March 30 has triggered a wave of speculation about Havana’s intentions ahead of a critical summit of North, South, and Central American leaders this weekend.

The rare showing, Castro’s first since the historic thaw between Havana and Washington began in December, comes right as the United States is trying to walk a fine line between wooing Havana over the objections there of die-hard leftists and maintaining the pressure on Cuba’s chief patron, Venezuela. The United States imposed financial sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials on March 9 and barred them from obtaining U.S. visas for their involvement in a deadly crackdown on protesters last year.

For longtime Cuba watchers, the “impromptu” appearance may be a message to the Cuban public that “El Jefe” supports Havana’s new rapprochement with Washington, but isn’t about to leave old friends and allies in the cold.

“I think showing him out and about is probably a move to clarify that recent changes have been blessed by the guy who created the revolution,” said Rachel DeLevie-Orey, an analyst at the Atlantic Council.

On Saturday, government media outlets released images of the 88-year-old addressing a group of 33 Venezuelans visiting a school in Cuba. According to local media reports, Castro’s address displayed the icon’s “vitality,” “shining eyes,” and “great” physical condition. They also noted his lucidity and up-to-date knowledge of conditions in Venezuela, which is being crushed by plunging oil prices and a dysfunctional economy.

Castro has long been dogged by rumors of ill health, leading to questions about whether new reforms implemented by his brother Raúl, who formally took over the country in 2008, enjoy Fidel’s support. The appearance could quell concerns that Raúl is warming up to Washington without the approval of his increasingly frail brother.

“Raúl has the legitimacy of being a Castro, but he’s not the original,” said DeLevie-Orey. “Having Fidel out and about shows that these policies are supported at all levels.”

Other experts say the appearance, his first in 14 months, may be more about reassuring Venezuela that Cuba is still fighting the anti-imperialist battle against American hegemony in the hemisphere.

In the address last week, Castro railed against the new economic sanctions Washington has imposed on Venezuelan officials. The Venezuelans he met with were reportedly collecting signatures for a petition asking President Barack Obama to rescind his executive order.

“It was no accident that he met with Venezuelan students given his warm embrace and support for chavismo,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, referring to the left-wing political ideology associated with Venezuela’s former president. “It is a symbolic opportunity to reinforce a shared sense of victimhood in the face of alleged U.S. aggression.”

For years, Venezuela has been Cuba’s closest regional partner, having taken the place of the defunct Soviet Union as Havana’s economic lifeline. Caracas had been sending 100,000 barrels a day of heavily subsidized oil to Cuba, until Venezuela’s own economic woes forced it recently to curtail oil subsidies sent to Cuba and other Caribbean islands. In return for oil, Havana offers technical support to Venezuela in the form of thousands of military advisors, doctors, and teachers.

Ricardo Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, a group that supports engagement with Havana, called the appearance a “token gesture of support for [Cuba’s] top regional ally and nothing more.”

“[It’s] way to cover the populist left flank in the lead-up to the summit,” he said, referring to the Summit of the Americas, which begins on Friday.

The seventh gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders in Panama has gained interest because Cuba has been invited for the first time — a tangible sign of improving U.S.-Cuba relations.

Cuba watchers are paying particularly close attention to the Hemispheric Forum on Civil Society and Social Actors, which will allow Cuban dissidents, human rights activists, and anti-establishment artists to mingle with Cuban officials. A congressional aide who covers Latin American issues said the type of dissidents granted exit visas to attend will be a telling sign of Havana’s openness to reform.

But while many will want the summit to focus on Cuba — in particular, to offer a historic snapshot between Cuban and U.S. leaders — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has other plans.

The vocal critic of the United States wants to steer the gathering toward a singular focus: forcing Washington to repeal the executive order denying visas and freezing assets of Venezuelan officials. He plans to present a petition to Obama with 10 million signatures opposing the sanctions.

The United States will likely downplay the disagreement over the sanctions.

On Friday, Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said during an event at the Brookings Institution that the issue was “blown way out of proportion.”

The move was “not intended to hurt the Venezuelan people or even the Venezuelan government as a whole,” she said.

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