Havana — Fidel Castro is not fading away. Despite talking about a vacation and retirement, he has retained a role as commentator in chief - and possibly as commander in chief. He still heads the Communist Party, and will sign off on all major policy decisions, giving him a powerful role if he chooses to exercise it.
His younger brother Raul, who replaced him in the presidency on Sunday, is among legions of loyalists having a hard time letting go of the 81-year-old, ailing guerrilla leader, either out of habit or deference. Raul insisted his brother has "a very clear mind" and pledged to seek his advice on "the decisions of special transcendence for the future of our nation."
"Fidel retains considerable power," Wayne Smith, America's former top diplomat in Havana, said Tuesday. "He won't be involved in the day-to-day running of the government, but will clearly have a say in all major decisions."
The elder Castro's chair was vacant at Sunday's parliament session, which chose Cuba's new leadership. He has not appeared in public in the 19 months since he underwent intestinal surgery and provisionally ceded his powers to Raul. And Fidel wrote last week that he slept better than ever after deciding to retire, and promised himself a vacation.
Still, he cast an absentee ballot at parliament, prompting a standing ovation from lawmakers who closed the meeting with chants of "Viva Fidel!" The 76-year-old Raul accepted the presidency in a speech filled with references to the brother he has looked up to since they were boys.
"I take on the responsibility entrusted to me deeply convinced that, as I have often said, there is only one Commander in Chief of the Cuban Revolution," Raul said. It was unclear whether he was being literal or simply praising the man who launched the rebel uprising that transformed Cuba into a communist state in America's backyard.
Fidel had said he would relinquish the title of commander in chief, and has since changed the name of his "Reflections of the Commander in Chief" column to "Reflections of Comrade Fidel."
Raul requested - and received - permission from lawmakers to consult with Fidel on all decisions involving "defense, foreign policy and socioeconomic development," noting that the late former Cuban Foreign Minister Raul Roa once said: "Fidel hears the grass growing and sees what is happening around the corner."
It's impossible to know how much power Fidel Castro will actually wield in the new government, but clearly it's far less than before he announced his illness on July 31, 2006.
For nearly a half-century, the elder Castro ruled with near-absolute power over the Caribbean's largest island. His voice was regularly heard on state radio and television giving hours-long speeches railing against imperialism and exhorting his countrymen to choose "Socialism or Death!"
His image was once ubiquitous in Havana, plastered on billboards throughout the city, on posters in shop windows, and in framed portraits in government offices and loyalists' homes.
Now, government broadcasts make do with his recorded voice from past speeches, often in heavily nostalgic documentaries about his life and deeds.
His bearded visage still hangs in offices, but is rare on the billboards that once pictured him in olive drab uniform above upbeat messages like "Everything's going well!"