Cubans expect low-key bash for Castro birthday

Cubans expect a low-key, 81st birthday bash on Monday for President Fidel Castro as he continues recovering from an operation a year ago, but a visit by friend Hugo Chávez could be on the cards.

The Venezuelan president, who claims to be Castro’s political heir, hinted as much a week ago when he said he would “soon” visit his friend and ally.

Chávez was at Castro’s bedside when he turned 80 last year and “provisionally” ceded power to his brother, Raul, four days after undergoing stomach surgery.

Chávez’s possible visit could be the highlight of the birthday celebrations, since few in Cuba expect glitzy spectacles like in the past, or even fresh news about Castro’s condition or his political future.

No official celebrations have been planned, and only a few social and political groups have announced festivities.

“No cheers or tears, nothing extraordinary, not a word said. He’s no longer at the centre,” an unnamed 32-year-old woman watering her lawn told Agence France-Presse, echoing a widely held opinion that Fidel Castro has been sidelined for good.

More cautious, kindergarten teacher Amelia Suarez (36) recalled that Fidel “has always been discreet about his personal life, although all of us at times would like to know more about his health”.

“The important thing is that we wish him a happy birthday and, above all, that he makes a good recovery. He doesn’t need any advertising,” she said.

Besides photographs and eight videos taken during his recovery, Castro’s contact with the public has come in articles attributed to him—37 to date since late March—printed in the official newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebeldes.

Under the general heading of “Reflections of the Commander in Chief”, Fidel Castro has written at length on a variety of issues, nearly always ending in an anti-American tirade.

On July 31 Fidel relented somewhat to persistent questions about his plans for the future, saying cryptically that his brother Raul was making “every important decision ...
after consulting with me”.

“What am I going to do? I will fight ceaselessly as I have done all my life,” said Castro, prompting many Cubans to read in between the lines that he has no intention of returning to power, even if he’s back in health.

A sign Cubans see that Fidel is far from fully recovered is that since the operation he has been seen wearing only pyjamas or a track suit—not his traditional olive-green army uniform.

Cubans were shocked on August 13 2006 by the first photographs of a bedraggled Fidel Castro after his operation.

On his 80th birthday Fidel hosted Chávez, while Cubans held open-air concerts, candle-light vigils and mass demonstrations of affection for their convalescing leader.

The real birthday celebrations, which Fidel postponed three months, started on November 28 with visits by 1 500 foreign dignitaries, and ended with a huge military parade on December 2 presided by Raul Castro.

During that celebration and three other important public events since then, people hoped in vain to see Fidel Castro make a public appearance.

Few believe that Fidel will be seen on Monday, despite his most recent video, dated June 5, that showed him with more weight and in good spirits, though still visibly fragile and with a weak voice.

On May 24, Fidel confessed in a statement that he had undergone several operations during his year-long seclusion.

“Everything seems to indicate he will never return. His health has left him at 81. We don’t even know where he is, or whether he’s dead or alive. These are the big mysteries of this country,” opposition leader Vladimiro Roca told AFP.

Some observers believe Fidel has taken on a new role as adviser for important decisions while his brother Raul handles the day-to-day governing and administrative chores.

As dissident Manuel Cuesta sees it, Fidel has begun “a slow and gradual withdrawal from everything he represents for Cuba” and for 70% of Cuba’s 11-million people who have grown up under his rule.

Born on August 13 1926 in the south-eastern city of Biran to a Spanish immigrant father and a Cuban farm worker mother, Fidel has dedicated most of his life to the Cuban Revolution. He is married to Dalia Soto del Valle and has eight children.—AFP

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