Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cubans anxiously await Castro's appearance

Cubans anxiously await Castro's appearance
POSTED: 12:26 p.m. EST, November 30, 2006

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- Banners hanging from restored buildings in this
seaside city encourage ailing leader Fidel Castro to live to 160, but
Cubans are now grappling with the realization that his days as their
charismatic leader may be over.

Most Cubans have known no other ruler than Castro, who 50 years ago
Saturday landed on a boat from Mexico with fellow rebels to launch a
revolution that triumphed on Jan. 1, 1959. But Castro, waylaid for four
months with an intestinal ailment, was still too sick to attend
Tuesday's kickoff of a five-day celebration of his 80th birthday. He
turned 80 on August 13 but postponed the party because of surgery two
weeks earlier.

Castro's supporters in this Caribbean island of 11 million fervently
wish he will at least appear for the military parade Saturday marking
the semicentennial anniversary of the boat landing.

Traffic cops in blue uniforms and black boots this week were directing
traffic, primarily smog-belching Russian Lada sedans and 1950s-era
American cars, from the enormous Plaza de la Revolucion, which was being
readied for the parade.

But if Castro fails to appear on the grandstand, some will take his
absence as a sign he will never return to power, although it is
considered sacrilege among the Castro faithful to even speak of the

"I hope he attends the parade on Saturday," Amparo Mora, a 45-year-old
housewife, said in her home in Havana's colonial section. "He doesn't
even have to stand, just be there, with doctors at his side if that is
necessary. I want him with us. I want him with us eternally."

The birthday bash is being attended by hundreds of personalities from
Latin America and beyond. They praised Castro's revolutionary
achievements in a colloquium entitled "Memory and Future: Cuba and
Fidel" at Havana's convention center.

But with Castro absent, it seemed at times more like a memorial service.

Tomas Borge, a founder of Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista National
Liberation Front, denied the birthday celebrations have turned into a
goodbye to Castro, even as he stressed that his legacy is more important
than his physical presence.

"We will never say goodbye to Fidel," Borge told reporters Wednesday.
"He will exist forever. ... So this is not a goodbye. It is an homage."

It is impossible to gauge the extent of Cubans' loyalty to Castro.
American-style opinion polls are not conducted.

There is no free speech, limited free enterprise and little political
freedom on the island. That his communist regime is not universally
loved is underscored by the departure of thousands of Cubans each year
in risky ocean crossings to Florida.

But many Cubans appreciate the government's free health care and
education that extends through the university level. They remember, or
have learned, that the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista that Castro
ousted was brutal and corrupt.

Several Cubans interviewed appear to genuinely want Castro to get well
and return to power. His 75-year-old brother, Defense Minister Raul
Castro, has been running the country since Fidel handed him power in an
unprecedented move July 31 after undergoing surgery for intestinal bleeding.

At the government's gigantic Coppelia ice cream shop -- where one scoop
of vanilla, the only flavor available on a recent day, goes for five
cents for locals -- two waitresses discussed Castro's health during
their break.

"Fidel is sick and needs time to recover, but I want him to appear at
the parade, if only for five minutes," said Susana Gonzalez, 25. Near
the entrance to the flying-saucer-shaped structure that seats 300
customers, Castro's words were etched in stone: "Revolution is an
historic moment, it is changing all that must be changed."

Waitress Yacmi Anni Bachiller proclaimed confidence that Castro will get

"My grandfather is also 80," she said. "He was down for a year after
prostate surgery but he is back up and active again. Fidel, too, will

In plazas spruced up in a face-lifting of old Havana that began more
than a decade ago, European tourists with cameras dangling from their
wrists strolled underneath banners proclaiming: "Viva Fidel - 80 more."

But even if Castro does return to power, Cubans know the banners
represent wishful thinking.

At Havana's El Salvador Primary School, young scrubbed students wearing
red neckerchiefs ran past a poster of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che"
Guevara. Unlike most Cubans, this younger generation will likely not
have Castro as their sole leader.

But school principal Yenisel Lorenzo said she is confident he will
remain a spiritual guiding force.

"We teach the children solidarity, brotherhood, moral values," Lorenzo
said. "We never talk about Castro not being here. But we will always
follow his thoughts."

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