Castro the birthday boy tries to keep up with the times

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The Independent Online
When 32-year-old lawyer-cum-revolutionary Fidel Castro gave his first victory speech in Havana in January 1959, a white dove circled the podium, mesmerising all except the speaker. It landed on Castro's left shoulder, sparking shouts of "Fi-del! Fi-del!".

To the superstitious Cubans, mostly followers of the voodoo-like African- rooted Santeria religion, it was an omen. In Santeria, the dove is a symbol of the Son of God. "Fidel is an elegido [Chosen One]," a Babalao, or Santeria priest, said later. "He has a mandate from God."

Seventy today, Castro is the last, stubborn remnant of communism in the western hemisphere. The beard is still there, though grey. The belt has had to be loosened on his olive uniform tunic but the back is still straight. The voice tends to tremble but the words have not changed. "Socialism or Death!" he still tells his audience.

"Dying doesn't figure in my immediate plans," he told the U.N. at its own birthday party, its 50th, in New York last year. "Fidel will not die!" shout his supporters whenever he speaks.

During more than 37 years in power, he has seen eight U.S. presidents come and go. But can he go on for ever?

"He is in visibly poor health, a big decline since I last saw him in October," said Dan Rather, CBS's TV anchorman, who recently filmed a documentary on Castro. "He was feeble when he took steps. He conserves his strength."

He also retains a sense of humour. When Rather asked him to name his most dangerous moments, he said they were the CIA's plots to kill him - "with the possible exception of flying Aeroflot".

Castro is estimated to have survived 33 assassination attempts. The CIA's included a plan to make him smoke an exploding cigar and the "Samson Scheme", an attempt to slip him a poison that would make his beard fall out, destroying his image.

That image has been battered by economic disaster, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's long-time protector. The island has since been in a "Special Period," an economic state of emergency with rationing of basic goods.

In his last major speech, on 26 July, el Jefe Maximo (the Biggest Chief) claimed the economy was recovering, citing a growth rate of 9.6. per cent. He has opened up the economy to a certain degree, allowing small businesses and the legal holding of US dollars.

With the communist party still the only one permitted, however, and with dissidence often punished by jail terms, it is hard to gauge his popularity. Castro appears to retain support among those old enough to remember the Batista dictatorship and to appreciate the social changes he brought about.

The younger generation tends to be more openly critical and in favour of change.

Aware of that sentiment, Castro has delegated more responsibility to younger men such as economics tsar Carlos Lage and Roberto Robaina, Foreign Minister. Both are tipped as possible successors should Castro step down but few Cubans expect him to do so.