The Washington Post
By Esteban Israel
Monday, July 23, 2007; 8:13 AM
HAVANA (Reuters) - A year after emergency surgery forced Fidel Castro to hand over power for the first time since his 1959 revolution, he has become a prolific writer on world affairs but shows no sign of returning to lead Cuba.
The last living major figure of the Cold War, Castro has not appeared in public since last July 26 and the occasional taped appearances have all shown him in a casual red tracksuit instead of his trademark olive green military uniform.
Rumors that he might reappear have swirled ahead of several anniversary events in Cuba's revolutionary calendar over the past year, but each time he has stayed away.
While government officials insist he does not have cancer, as some U.S. officials had suggested, they are less upbeat than they used to be about his return to power and he is not expected to make a public appearance this week.
"As long as we keep seeing him in athletic gear -- sort of the Latin American version of a retiree's leisure suit -- he is signaling that he will not retake the helm," said Julia Sweig, Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank.
Castro will turn 81 next month and may never again be fit enough to deliver one of his marathon speeches, so he instead keeps busy by writing dozens of editorials on global issues -- he has printed 42,000 words since March.
Most attack his ideological nemesis, U.S. President George W. Bush over the Iraq war or for threatening the world's poor and hungry with increased biofuels production that Castro says will reduce the amount of food the world gets from crops.
Some less weighty subjects also grab his attention -- last week he gloated over Cuba's victory against the United States in the Pan-American games women's volleyball competition.
Whatever the issue, Castro's editorials are published in full in the Communist Party newspaper Granma and read out repeatedly on state-run television.
"Cuba's one-party state needs to keep him alive, even if it is only a virtual presence, because he is such an important symbol and the source of legitimacy of his successors," said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua.
Shortly after his last public appearance, Castro was rushed to hospital for surgery to stop intestinal bleeding and his younger brother Raul Castro took over as acting president.
The old revolutionary was close to death at one point but has looked steadily stronger in recent video appearances.
That improvement and his energetic writings convinced some Cubans that he is already back running things. Recent columns have dealt with domestic issues. In one, he lashed out at a government official for something he said on television: "Where did that brute come from?"
But Castro gave no indication in a taped television interview last month that he intended to resume governing and many Cuba watchers believe he will not able to return.
Instead, they expect him to wield a power of veto over policy, keeping a lid on the pace of reform to open up Cuba's unproductive economy, which is 90 percent state-owned.
"His influence remains enormous," said Sweig.
"Clearly, he is now playing the senior statesman role, the philosopher-king reflecting on the weighty problems threatening the future of the human race, and the role of the United States or the "Empire" as an aggravating factor," said Canadian historian John Kirk.
Without Fidel Castro at the helm, Sweig says the government knows it has to deliver on bread and butter issues and is moving that way under the pragmatic leadership of Raul Castro, who has fostered debate on what needs to be fixed, Sweig said.
A year after he took over, however, Cubans have seen little progress in solving their main woes: low wages, high food prices, decrepit housing and deficient public transport.
Still, none of those frustrations have yet created significant unrest, confounding some Castro critics who hoped communist rule would crumble without him.
Cuesta Morua, said Cubans are too busy with their daily survival to think about politics, as they try to supplement their incomes by stealing from the state and selling on the black market,
Despite the loyalty that many show to Fidel Castro, calls for reform are widespread.
"I have switched off. I'm not interested in politics. What I want is for this to change," said Yoandri, 19, a carpenter by trade who sells clothes on a Havana street for a living.