Low-key celebrations in Cuba as Castro turns 81

Campaign News | Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Agence France-Presse

HAVANA -- A brief fireworks display marked subdued public celebrations Monday for Cuban leader Fidel Castro's 81st birthday as the ailing president stayed out of public view.

"It is the people's tribute to Fidel," actress and radio host Gliselda Farinas told AFP after five minutes of fireworks early on Monday over Havana Bay.

The fireworks show just after midnight on the Malecon sea front was officially to mark the final day of the popular festival Carnaval de La Habana but it was widely seen as a homage to the convalescing Castro.

Dancers atop floats chanted "Viva Fidel," while some in the crowd waved Cuban flags or photos of Castro as they watched the pyrotechnics. But unlike previous years there were no major official spectacles planned to honor the Cuban leader's birthday.

Only a few social and political groups have announced events, and Castro was not expected to make an appearance at any of the festivities.

The communist leader has not been seen in public since undergoing an intestinal operation in July 2006, though he has appeared in photographs and eight videos taken during his recovery.

After his operation, Castro "provisionally" ceded power to his brother Raul, the defense minister, but he has given no indication when he might return to office.

From the United States, three of five Cubans charged with espionage sent birthday greetings to the leader of the 1959 Cuban revolution, which were carried by the official Granma newspaper.

"We wish you health and vitality, that you have many more, and that we can celebrate all those future anniversaries together in our beautiful native country," wrote Ramon Labanino, one of the five Cubans convicted in 2001 of spying, from a prison in Beaumount, Texas.

While state television broadcast old interviews with Castro and a documentary about his life, Cubans recognized that their leader was taking a much lower profile compared to years past.

"No cheers or tears, nothing extraordinary, not a word said. He's no longer at the center," said a 32-year-old woman watering her lawn, echoing a widely held view that Castro has been sidelined since his surgery.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who claims to be Castro's political heir, hinted a week ago that he would "soon" visit his friend and may be in Havana on Monday, though there has been no official announcement.

Kindergarten teacher Amelia Suarez, who at 36 has known no other president, 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," said Suarez. "He doesn't need any advertising."

While he may be out of sight, Castro has kept his voice in the public arena through articles attributed to him -- 37 of them since late March -- printed in the official newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde.

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

He has largely avoided commenting on his political future. On July 31 Fidel wrote cryptically that his 76-year-old brother Raul was making "every important decision ... after consulting with me."

In another sign Fidel's days of political vigor may be behind him, he has been seen wearing only pajamas or a track suit since his operation -- instead of his trademark olive-green army uniform.

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

More elaborate 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, Fidel Castro failed to make a public appearance.

In his most recent video, dated June 5, Castro appeared in good spirits, though still fragile.


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