Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Castro question

The Castro question
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Larger than life even while ailing in hospital, Fidel Castro is casting
a big question mark over his 80th birthday celebrations this week, as
all Cubans wonder if they will get to see the revolutionary leader in
the flesh.

It's been four months since Castro relinquished power temporarily to his
brother and defense minister, Raul Castro, and postponed his birthday
celebrations from August 13 to December 2, the 50th anniversary of his
communist revolution in Cuba.

Castro underwent intestinal surgery in late July and while statements
and letters from him have been read out - including by his friend
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - he has only been seen on television
and in photographs, and speculation is rampant about his health.

The noise has come to a fever pitch amid preparations for his birthday
celebrations, which get officially under way today and involve 1,500
guests from 76 countries, including presidents, ex-presidents, Nobel
laureates, actors and musicians. The Cubans have not made the guest list

The week of festivities will climax Saturday, when Cuba will hold its
first military parade in a decade. Some 300,000 people are expected to
march, as tanks, artillery and armored transport units will be rolled
out and fighter jets will soar overhead.

It is then that all eyes will turn to the main podium to see if the
gray-bearded leader is present and, if he is, judge whether he is strong
enough to ever retake the helm from his brother.

Cuban authorities have been short on details as his health is considered
a state secret. They say Castro is recovering but have not said when he
might return to lead the country full-time.

After Castro's last five-minute television appearance October 28, Cubans
are divided about their elderly leader's future. "I think he's feeling
better and maybe will make a public appearance at the parade ... but
getting back to government again, to his usual job, I don't know. Its
difficult for me to see that," said a 52-year-old radio worker who
wished to remain anonymous.

"It's over, he's not getting back on his feet ever again," a dissident

"The boss is totally fit," said a retired leader of the Revolution
Defense Committee.

Most Cubans when questioned about Castro's health simply raise their
eyebrows and shake their heads in a silent "who knows?"

The fact any information on Castro's health is considered a state secret
does not encourage easy conversation and most people avoid the subject.

Even doctors are reluctant to give an opinion on Castro's health,
pointing out that little has been reported on the complicated intestinal
surgery he underwent July 27, and that a proper diagnosis is practically

Within a month of the operation, Castro said he had lost 18.6 kilograms.
His usual proud, stout frame of a statesman had given way in pictures to
a frail, weak-looking elderly hospital patient.

"I don't know what he's got, but his face, his cheekbones tell me he's
not a healthy man. You also have to keep in mind that he's 80 - he may
get very good medical attention, but he also has a very tough
lifestyle," one doctor said.

Meanwhile, Cuban officials at home and abroad insist that Castro is
recovering, and his friend Chavez seems increasingly enthusiastic about
seeing him return to power.

"I think that soon we'll see Fidel Castro's second mandate. The first
one lasted 40 years, and very soon the second one will begin," Chavez
said Saturday after showing a group of followers a letter Castro sent him.

Castro has tried to calm the speculation surrounding him by saying that
his recovery "will be long and not exempt of risk."

Regardless of Castro's appearance in Saturday's parade, political
observers will more readily focus on this year's second and final
session of Cuba's parliament in the last week of December. That's when
economic plans and the budget are set for the next year, and Castro's
presence at that meeting would speak volumes about his intention to
return to office. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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