Wed 13 Dec 2006
By Esteban Israel
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans are increasingly talking in the past tense about Fidel Castro, the man who governed their lives for 47 years.
Castro has not appeared in public since he underwent emergency intestinal surgery and temporarily handed over the presidency to his younger brother, Raul Castro, on July 31.
Cubans have not been told what Castro, 80 and in power since 1959, has wrong with him or where he is.
"On television they hardly mention him and when they do it's as if he was already dead," said Roberto, a self-employed Cuban who did not give his surname as he waited at a bus stop.
"The official silence is preparing the country" for his death, said Walter, an artist. "But people love him and want to know what is wrong with him."
There is no way to measure public opinion in the single-party socialist country, where the media is state-controlled, but many Cubans admit to anxiously believing Castro may be on his way out.
Castro's failure to appear at a military parade on Dec 2. marking the 50th anniversary of the start of his guerrilla uprising was the clearest signal to Cubans that he will not be back to govern. The festivities were also a delayed celebration of Castro's August 13 birthday.
The Cuban government released last week a CD-ROM with 998 speeches by the famously wordy revolutionary as part of a series of homages to the ailing leader that have convinced many Cubans he is at death's door.
Cubans were told on Tuesday that communist ally North Korea bestowed on Castro the title of "labour hero" and no one was surprised by his absence from the ceremony.
"When Fidel is no longer there," has become a regular phrase used by the Cuban leadership when seeking to make their point to the country that the political system will endure after Castro, the last key figure from the Cold War to remain in power.
SIGNS OF POOR HEALTH
Since handing over power temporarily to his brother, Castro has been seen only in photographs and video images, the last shown on October 28 and showing a frail and shuffling old man.
Castro's failure to call his closest ally, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, to congratulate him on his December 3 reelection, was fresh indication that his health may be declining further, setting off rumours of his death among exiled Cubans in Miami.
Many Cuban exiles have been wishing Castro dead for years.
Castro has not met with an old friend, Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, who is in Havana, according to a friend of the writer.
Officials in the United States, which has long been Cuba's political foe, suspect Castro has terminal cancer, which Havana has denied repeatedly.
Cuban officials have insisted he is recovering, though fewer are doing so and more are stressing the importance of his legacy over his presence as the country's leader.
Since last Friday, Cuban television has broadcast parts of a recent conference on Castro's role in history that drew left-wing politicians, intellectuals and activists from dozens of countries.
"The enemies of the revolution are counting the minutes waiting and wishing for Fidel's death," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told the conference.
"What they don't understand is that Fidel is no longer just Fidel, he is his people," he said.