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Public Appearances Raise Questions about Fidel Castro's Role in Cuba

A series of recent public appearances by Fidel Castro is raising questions about what role the former president is taking in Cuba's communist government, and what impact that might have on the island nation's decades-old differences with the United States.

Fidel Castro showed his age in a recent speech at Cuba's National Assembly. But his words displayed much of his fiery rhetoric toward the United States. He accused the U.S. of pushing Iran toward nuclear war. "They [U.S. officials] would be ordering the death of hundreds of millions of people, amongst them an incalculable number of residents of their own country - but also of the crew members of all the United States' naval ships in the waters around Iran," he said.

Mr. Castro's speech to lawmakers was his first since falling ill in 2006 and handing power to his brother, Raul Castro. The comments on Iran do not necessarily reflect a new alliance with Iran. Rather, Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami, says it is a chance to antagonize the United States. "They [Cuba's government] have signed a couple of agreements with Iran. This is the small nations versus the big nations," he explains. "But it's according to how Fidel wants it."

For many Cubans, Mr. Castro's speech offered little on domestic issues, especially the struggling economy. Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, says that may be on purpose. "The old Fidel would have gone into microscopic detail about the government's decisions on domestic policy and he's not touching that," Peters said. "Most importantly, he has not raised a word or given the slightest hint of objection to the release of political prisoners that Raul Castro is engaging in now."

In July, Cuba released 21 jailed dissidents, including several who were sent to Spain. President Barack Obama has been pressing Cuba to free all political prisoners, especially amid hunger strikes by prominent dissidents.

Guillermo Farinas was recently hospitalized during a four-month hunger strike to demand the release of dissidents.

Gomez says the prisoner release may appease the U.S. and other foreign critics, but by sending dissidents abroad the government weakens the opposition. "You're trying to get rid of the opposition. It's a smart move on their part. On the other hand, these people [dissidents] finally got the freedom they deserve. Unfortunately, they had to leave their country," he said.

Gomez says President Obama may respond to the release by loosening some restrictions on Cuba, such as allowing more Americans to visit the island. The president has said he will work with Cuba if it opens up to democratic reforms.

Philip Peters says that may be a slow process of reform, as long as the Castros are in power. "I don't for a minute believe that Fidel Castro is ceding anything, but it does seem pretty clear that Raul Castro is proceeding with his very cautious step-by-step economic reforms. And they are going to take a while to play out. They're going to take longer to play out than most of us would like," Peters said.

The question is how U.S. officials may respond to such an approach.