HAVANA – Once known for long-winded speeches and newspaper columns with word counts that rambled into the thousands, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has suddenly discovered the virtue of brevity.
So acolytes and detractors alike have met the latest musings of the Cuban revolutionary with befuddlement. His normally loquacious opinion pieces in the local press lately almost have been short enough to tweet, and sometimes as vague and mysterious as a fortune cookie.
Since he left office in 2006, the former Cuban president has kept himself busy publishing thoughts on whatever topics might interest him: from dire warnings of a looming nuclear Armageddon, to disgust at U.S. politics and to fond memories of his swashbuckling past.
Whatever he writes is reprinted in its entirety in every Cuban newspaper, and read out in serious tones by anchors on television and radio broadcasts. Often, comments or newspaper articles that catch Castro's fancy are quoted nearly in their entirety, with only brief fresh comment. Occasionally, Castro even quotes his own past columns, entitled "Reflections" verbatim from beginning to end.
The pieces come irregularly, but almost all have one thing in common. They are long. Or at least they were until last week, when the 85-year-old began a flurry of bite-sized ruminations that have Cubans and Cuba-watchers alike scratching their heads.
"What are the FC?" Castro asked in a one-paragraph offering on June 10, before answering himself cryptically: "These comprise a method with which I try to transmit the modest understandings I have acquired during long years, and which I consider useful for Cuban officials responsible for the production of foodstuffs that are essential to our people's lives."
Nobody on the island seems to have any idea what the "FC" stands for, or what the former leader is referring to. The Cuban government has not responded to requests for an explanation.
In comments posted on the government's Cubadebate website beneath the "Reflection," Cubans took turns trying to decipher its meaning, or asking for help.
"I WOULD APPRECIATE IF THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF, OR ONE OF HIS AIDES, EXPLAINS WHAT ARE THE FC," wrote a reader identified as Orestes.
"For me it's clear what FC stands for," said a bold poster named Armando. "Corrupt functionaries, dung-eating functionaries, cretinous functionaries, outdated functionaries, quasi-stupid functionaries, complicit functionaries." In Spanish, all of those possibilities bear the initials FC.
Exiles in Miami have long-monitored Castro's writings, and false rumors of his demise pop up whenever a few weeks go by without a new essay. The latest batch have raised questions of another kind.
"Every day his comments are getting smaller. Like someone who is fading out," said Miami political consultant and Cuban exile Gus Garcia. "I keep thinking the whole philosophy now is from a gentleman who is no longer in touch with reality."
The day after the FC essay, Castro published a 65-word blurb on former East German leader Erich Honecker, whose communist regime collapsed in 1990 as reforms in the Soviet Union led to uprisings that swept away socialist governments across Eastern Europe.
"I maintain feelings of profound solidarity with Honecker," Castro wrote, following a dig at an unnamed world leader who "sold his soul for a few fingers of vodka," an apparent reference to reformist Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Another, three-line offering sent June 14, criticizes Deng Xiaoping, considered the architect of China's economic reforms, for a long-ago slight against Cuba.
One "Relfection" consisted solely of reproducing six-lines of poetry about deceased revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
This week's offerings are even more esoteric.
A 51-word dispatch on Monday talked up the benefits of a tree used in many developing countries to boost nutrition and feed livestock.
"The conditions exist for the country to begin massive production of moringa oleifera and white mulberry which, in addition to being an inexhaustible source of meat, eggs and milk, have silky fibers that can be woven artisanally and are capable of creating well-paid work in the shade, regardless of age or sex," reads the entire piece.
On Tuesday, Castro wrote two sentences noting that yoga masters "can do things with the human body that can hardly be imagined." He urged his countrymen to watch an upcoming television program on the subject, before signing off.
Ted Henken, a Cuba expert and professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in New York, said the mini-reflections read like something between a tweet and a haiku.
"They either mean nothing at all or are like reading tea leaves," he said. "It's like that crazy uncle who says inscrutable things, either full of hidden meaning or full of something else."
Islanders have grown accustomed to Castro's circuitous manner of speaking, with philosophy and bold ideas interrupted by long, tangential asides. In his heyday, Castro could speak for hours under the blazing Caribbean sun, and still holds the record for the longest speech (4 hours, 16 minutes) ever given to the U.N. General Assembly.
But Cubans say the randomness of the new, mini-dispatches is unsettling, and reactions have ranged from puzzlement to outright derision.
"I don't understand what he is trying to say but it must be something, because Fidel never does anything just to do it," said Julio Romero, a 67-year-old retiree. "There's always a reason, so we'll see."
Many younger Cubans were less charitable, if reluctant to go on the record for fear of getting into trouble.
"I think he's toasted," said Pablo, a 20-something Havana resident. He smiled and twirled his finger next to his ear as he used the slang term for crazy, then walked briskly away.