Adios Castro? Fears grow for veteran leader's health

Another no-show from the Cuban leader sparks serious fears for his health
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With fireworks over Havana harbour and the first military parade of this century, hundreds of thousands of Cubans turned out yesterday for Fidel Castro's belated 80th birthday party, but the veteran leader did not appear.

No one had said he would, but there had been hints, including one from vice-president Carlos Lage, who said in advance that "we will have him among us" but left it open as to whether he meant yesterday or simply for ever. The Comandante's absence strongly suggested that his illness was serious, possibly even terminal, and that he was unlikely to grasp the reins of power again.

Most of those on the streets were pro-Castro Cubans, some bussed in by local communist groups, who had hoped the Comandante would make a surprise appearance, which would have been his first in public since intestinal surgery in July. His opponents, including the so-called Ladies in White, wives and mothers of imprisoned dissidents, had also hoped he would show himself, just so they could check on his condition - indeed, whether he was still alive.

European diplomats said Mr Castro would have loved nothing more than to appear at such an occasion, beamed around the world, with leftist leaders such as Evo Morales of Colombia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, as well as old friend Gabriel García Márquez among the dignitaries. (His closest regional ally, Hugo Chávez, was kept away by today's election.)

As ageing Soviet-made tanks, MiG jet fighters and anti-missile launchers trundled through Havana's Revolution Square, it was a bit like the old days of Kremlin-watching to see who would be on the podium, in which order, and who would take the salute. In the end, it was Mr Castro's younger brother Raul, acting president since Fidel's illness, who played the role of Jefe Máximo, or Maximum Chief.

Fidel was said to be watching on TV under medical supervision at home. Hence, it was seen as significant when Raul, 75, said in his speech: "We are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the long-standing dispute between the United States and Cuba, so long as this is based on the principle of equality, reciprocity, non-interference and mutual respect."

In his nearly 48 years in power, Fidel Castro always used such rallies to slam the superpower 90 miles to the north. For Raul to offer an olive branch suggested either that Fidel had used his brother to push a softer line, or that the younger brother was asserting himself. Either way, it was seen as heralding a possible turning point in US-Cuban relations.

Fidel's 80th birthday was on 13 August, not long after his surgery, which caused the postponement of celebrations. At that time, on the apparent assumption that he would be well by now, it was announced that his birthday celebrations would be held on 2 December, 50 years to the day since Fidel and Raul Castro, along with Che Guevara and 79 other comrades, came ashore in Cuba to launch their revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista.