HAVANA—Cuban-American exiles in Florida may be eagerly awaiting the death of Fidel Castro, but U.S. diplomats in Havana don’t expect the revolutionary icon’s passing to generate any immediate unrest on the communist-run island, or even an upsurge in Cubans seeking to leave, according to a newly released diplomatic cable.
Another cable from late last year reveals that Fidel’s brother, Raul, expressed an interest in opening a direct dialogue with the White House, but was apparently told any dealings should be conducted through normal diplomatic channels.
The January 2009 dispatch on Castro’s health was sent from the U.S. Interests Section and classified as “secret.” It said Cubans’ “generally conservative nature after 50 years of repression, combined with still significant admiration for Fidel personally, argue against short term disturbances.”
The cable, which was released Wednesday by WikiLeaks and posted online by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, was apparently written by Jonathan Farrar, the top U.S. diplomat on the island. Washington maintains the Interests Section instead of an embassy because the two Cold War enemies have no formal diplomatic relations. Farrar is referred to as chief of mission, not ambassador.
In the cable, Farrar said he expected the Cuban government to carefully manage the announcement of Fidel Castro’s death to make sure islanders understand that his brother Raul is still in charge. Raul took over the presidency from an ailing Fidel—first temporarily, then permanently—in 2006.
The two brothers have led Cuba since they ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, with Raul serving as the head of the armed forces before taking over the top spot.
“GOC (Government of Cuba) officials would most likely manage the death announcement and subsequent funeral arrangements, etc., in great detail with a view toward putting the best face on the situation, both domestically and to the world,” the cable reads. “Utmost care will be given to ensuring that the Cuban public understands that Raul and the rest of the GOC remain in firm control.”
Farrar speculated Fidel’s death could even cause a drop in the number of Cubans seeking to emigrate, as islanders wait to see what unfolds. A mass exodus of Cubans attempting a perilous journey by boat across the Straits of Florida would be a humanitarian disaster, and has always been one of Washington’s main concerns.
Far from dying, the 84-year-old Fidel has had something of a resurgence since the cable was written—particularly in recent months.
In 2009, Castro weighed in on international issues more than 100 times in frequent opinion pieces called “Reflections” that were published in state-media. In July of this year, he emerged from four years of seclusion, and now makes almost weekly appearances, looking old but mentally sharp.
Two cables from December 2009 reveal an apparently failed effort by Raul Castro to open a new channel for dialogue with the U.S. The first, signed by Farrar on Dec. 5, 2009, after a meeting with the Spanish ambassador to Cuba, outlines an offer apparently made by Raul Castro through then Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos to open direct talks with the White House.
“Only via such a political channel would the GOC be able to make major moves toward meeting U.S. concerns,” the cable said, quoting the Spanish ambassador.
In response, Farrar wrote that he ran through a list of diplomatic overtures the U.S. had already made toward Cuba, and suggested that rather than a backdoor dialogue, Castro “should engage seriously through the existing channels.”
A subsequent cable from last Dec. 18, following Moratinos’ meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the diplomat offered the services of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in arranging such a dialogue between Raul Castro and the White House.
The cable does not contain Clinton’s response, though there is no indication anything came of the Cuban overture, and relations between the two countries have worsened over the course of the year.
Several other cables released Wednesday show U.S. diplomats speculating about the physical and mental health of both Castro brothers.
In a series of dispatches from 2006 and 2007, U.S. diplomats discussed the unknown health issue that forced Fidel Castro from power, and guessing how much longer he might live. The cables quoted sources whose names have been redacted but who are apparently close to Fidel, and say the Cuban leader nearly died of his illness.
Castro himself has said as much, revealing in an interview earlier this year that at one point he hoped for death.
In a 2007 dispatch, Farrar’s predecessor, Michael Palmry, quoted an unidentified retired Cuban doctor as saying Fidel had an irreversible terminal illness, but would not die “immediately.”
“Frankly, we don’t believe anyone, including Castro himself, can state … with certainty” how long he will live, Palmry wrote. “However, while he is still alive, even in a reduced capacity, his presence has a chilling and retardant effect on Cuban society.”
Palmry intimated that Cubans were poised for change following Castro’s death, the exact opposite of the view Farrar expounded in the 2009 cable.
“The high expectations for change are still out there, but are mostly associated with the idea that the dictator has to die first before anything substantial will happen,” Palmry concluded.
There is a striking change in tone in the cables sent by Palmry and Farrar, who took over the Interests Section in 2008. Palmry rarely missed an opportunity to describe the Castro brothers in the harshest terms, while Farrar offered more detached assessments.
In a 2007 cable on the death of Raul Castro’s wife, Vilma Espin, Palmry speculated the loss might throw the Cuban president into a depression—even though he said it would have little effect on Fidel.
“Although we doubt Fidel Castro cares very much about the loss of Vilma Espin, or much else beyond his own personal legacy, we expect that her death will have a significant impact on Raul Castro,” the cable said, before continuing with what must be one of the greatest backhanded compliments in recent diplomatic history.
“Yes, both Fidel and Raul Castro are mass murderers and cruel leaders,” Palmry wrote. “But Raul always has had a parallel reputation as a family man.”