Fidel in Fatigues: Castro Returns to the Podium

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Frankly Reyes / AP

Fidel Castro waves during a special session of parliament, his first official government appearance in front of lawmakers in four years in Havana, Cuba.

Correction Appended: August 8, 2010

There's nothing like the sight of Fidel Castro in uniform to raise the flagging spirits of any Cuban communist. So when Castro, dressed in olive military fatigues, entered Cuba's National Assembly on Saturday morning — his first government appearance since going into near seclusion four years ago because of ill health — it was a chance for the island's apparatchiks, beset by political and economic uncertainties, to gush revolutionary again. As the frail comandante, who turns 84 on Aug. 13, walked in with the help of aides, Assembly members interrupted their session to give him a standing ovation and shout over and over, "Viva Fidel!"

Castro's speech was typically ardent — he warned that his archenemy, the U.S. "empire," was on the brink of starting a global nuclear war as it confronts Iran and North Korea — but uncharacteristically brief. The former leader spoke for just 12 minutes, a far cry from the hours-long marathons he was known for in his prime. After he finished, parliamentarians one after another congratulated him on looking relatively spry. Following abdominal surgery in 2006, Castro temporarily handed Cuba's presidency to his younger brother and defense minister, Raúl. Since then, Fidel had been seen only in photos and televised videos — until this summer, when he's made a surprising number of personal appearances around Havana. His Assembly discourse, at an extraordinary session to address international issues, only heightened speculation that he's eager to take the reins again.

No matter what shape he's in, Fidel's influence will loom large over Cuba until he draws his last breath — and until then, Cuba promises to remain the fault line of U.S.-hemispheric relations that it's been since he took power in 1959. But analysts warn against mistaking Fidel's recent reemergence as anything more than a visual and oratorical shot in the arm for the nation's communist faithful. "It's like seeing your aging grandfather wake up on the sofa all of a sudden and start holding forth on things," says Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York. "The party rank and file still like to bask in his stature, such as it is today."

As they do, Raúl's stature may benefit as well. In the early days after he relinquished power, many opined that Fidel, in essays published from his sickbed, disapproved of some of the changes decreed by his more reform-minded brother — such as letting Cubans own cell phones or allowing certain farmers to till private land. That shadow is one reason analysts think Raúl has held back on going even further with political and economic reform. But many also believe Fidel is popping up now not just to show that he's still in the mix, but to reaffirm his support for Raúl amid an economic crisis — even, they say, for the younger Castro's decision last month to release 52 political prisoners whom Fidel jailed during a harsh crackdown on dissidents in 2003. Fidel's appearances signal to communist hardliners that "if anyone is thinking of challenging [Raúl], they will have to deal with him," Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, recently told the Miami Herald.

If so, such support would be crucial to the 79-year-old Raúl. Cuba's economy is still 95% state-run, but it is reeling under the strain of the global recession, a U.S. trade embargo and its own epic inefficiencies. While Raúl recently insisted that Cuba's socialist system was "irrevocable," the island's financial straits are such that he also warned that the government may have to cut as many as a million jobs and permit more "self-employment," or small private businesses. Meanwhile, the communist leadership is being rocked by new accusations of corruption. Fidel's anti-U.S. speech on Saturday was widely viewed as a way to deflect attention from those domestic headaches.

The Obama Administration only helped Fidel in that effort with its controversial decision last week to keep Cuba on the State Department's list of nations that support terrorism — even though more genuinely threatening countries like North Korea were left off. Yet at the same time, the U.S. Congress may pass a bill this year that loosens Washington's 48-year-old embargo against Cuba by eliminating the ban on U.S. travel to the island and easing restrictions on agricultural sales there. The hope is that opening Cuba to Americans will more effectively promote democratization than have five decades of failed attempts to isolate the communist island. If that comes to pass, it would alter the dynamics of Cuba's relations with the "empire" in ways that would leave even another star appearance by Fidel overshadowed.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that Fidel Castro underwent stomach surgery in 2006. The surgery was actually intestinal.