Monday, August 13, 2007
Low-key 81st birthday for absent Fidel Castro
Workers hang a banner reading "Long Live Fidel Forever" in front of the historical National Hotel in Havana to celebrate Castro's 81st birthday. Photo: AP
Children cheer after singing "Happy Birthday" to Cuba's leader Fidel Castro while standing around a birthday cake at the Pioneer's Palace in Havana Aug. 13, 2007. The writing on the cake reads "Congratulations Commander." (Xinhua Photo/Reuters)
An employee decorates her working place with pictures of Cuban President Fidel Castro, in Havana. A brief fireworks display marked subdued public celebrations Monday for Castro's 81st birthday as the ailing president stayed out of public view.(AFP)
The Washington Post
By Anthony Boadle
Monday, August 13, 2007; 3:28 PM
HAVANA (Reuters) - Children sang "Happy Birthday, Fidel" in Havana's Lenin Park on Monday to mark the birthday of Cuba's ailing and absent 81-year-old leader Fidel Castro.
But there was no official birthday bash for Castro, who has not appeared in public since emergency bowel surgery forced him to hand over power to his brother Raul more than a year ago.
A fireworks display at midnight closed a week of Carnival festivities along Havana's Malecon sea-front boulevard and was not dedicated to Castro's birthday.
Cuba's state media ran eulogies of Castro, the last major Cold War figure still alive, saying the Cuban people still backed the socialist system born of his 1959 revolution.
The Communist Party newspaper Granma published on its front page greetings from five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States, where they were sent to spy on anti-Castro groups.
"Happy Birthday, from a prison of the Empire where you are in my heart every day," wrote Antonio Guerrero, who is serving a life-sentence at Florence Penitentiary, in Colorado, for spying on a Florida military airfield where he worked as a janitor.
The low-key celebrations contrasted with Castro's last birthday, when his main ally, Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez, visited him in a hospital. Pictures of the meeting helped convince the world that Castro had survived a life-threatening illness.
Uncertainty still surrounds Castro's health and his illness is a closely-guarded state secret that has not leaked from his inner circle in a year.
Cuba's Communist authorities maintain Castro is recovering from his health crisis, but they are no longer saying he will return to office. By all accounts, his brother Raul Castro is running the country.
While Castro has been out of sight for a year, he has not been out of mind, thanks to regular newspaper columns with his musings on problems he says threaten human survival, mostly blamed on his capitalist archenemy, the U.S. government.
"Our main wish is that you will continue to be with us," leftist President Evo Morales said in a greeting from Bolivia. "You are symbol ... of the Latin American revolution. Your struggle has not been in vain."
On the gritty streets of Havana, few expect to see Castro ever again in his trademark olive green fatigues delivering a thundering hours-long speech in Revolution Square.
"The Comandante will not show up. His health no longer permits that. I think he is not coming back," said retired state employee Jose Manuel, 73, sitting on a park bench as his grand-children played.
Like many other Cubans, Manuel believes the uncharismatic Raul Castro is doing a good job in his brother's shoes, preparing changes that will open up the state-run economy while preserving Cuba's social gains in education and health.
In Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana, several hundred children wished Castro a rapid recovery as they celebrated his birthday around a giant birthday cake in a well-scripted event at a pavilion named after guerrilla icon Ernesto Che Guevara.
"Get better, Comandante, and continue helping us," said 6-year-old Zeida Amor. Edisley Oquendo, 12, said: "He must look after himself to get better and continue leading this nation."
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, in his message, said that year after year Castro has strengthened political dialogue and friendship between the two nations.
An organization called the Latin American and Caribbean Voluntary Work Brigade congratulated Castro, saying he has been "a vivid example of the most noble of causes: the fight against injustice." The message was signed in the name of 250 brigade members across 11 nations.
From Buenos Aires, the First Ernesto Che Guevara Museum and Cuban Solidarity School sent a message of congratulations expressing immense happiness at having Castro as their "angel of tutelage."
In Bolivia, leading newspapers published messages of congratulations praising Castro for surviving attacks by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Dominica's El Mundo newspaper praised him as a symbol of "dignity in the Americas" and wished him a full return to health.
Spanish press also reported Castro's birthday, detailing the failed CIA attacks on him and saying that an atmosphere of calm continued to reign in Cuba more than a year after its leader handed power on a temporary basis to his younger brother.
Cuban press cheered Castro's birthday, describing him as an "indefatigable gladiator." Cuba will honor him by showing documentaries on his life on state television, the press reported.
Ramon Labanino, one of the five Cubans jailed in the United States for alleged spying, said in his message that he was "deeply proud of having a commander from the race of titans." He wished Castro "all possible health and vitality and many more birthdays."