Fidel Castro absent from military parade, birthday fete in Cuba

Sunday, December 3, 2006
People waved a portrait of Cuban leader Fidel Castro while they watched a military parade at the Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Saturday. Castro failed to attend the parade. (JAVIER GALEANO ~ Associated Press)

Raul Castro led the event, but did not explain his brother's absence.

HAVANA -- Fidel Castro failed to attend a military parade Saturday marking the 50th anniversary of the date he and his rebels launched their revolution, fueling speculation that the ailing Cuban leader may not return to power.

Acting President Raul Castro, who is Fidel's younger brother and the island's defense minister, led the event instead, giving a speech in which he reached out to the U.S. government, which has a decades-old trade and travel embargo against the communist-run island. He did not explain the absence of his brother, who has not been seen in public since July 26.

"We take this opportunity to once again state that we are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the long-standing dispute between the United States and Cuba," Raul Castro said. But he said Cuba would insist upon "equality, reciprocity, noninterference and mutual respect."

"In the meantime, after almost half a century, we are willing to wait patiently until the moment when common sense prevails in Washington power circles," he said.

The parade's most obvious purpose was to warn the United States against taking advantage of Fidel Castro's illness to attack the island. In the last 15 years the Cuban military has taken on a purely defensive role, and is trained to repel invaders.

It also commemorated what Raul Castro called "a transcendental act in our history."

Cubans and the elder Castro's supporters as well as opponents around the world had speculated all week whether the leader, recovering from intestinal surgery, would show. The military event, which lasted about two hours, culminated five days of events -- none of which were attended by Fidel Castro -- to celebrate the leader's birthday.

Raul Castro used the event to underscore cohesion among the Cuban people, the armed forces and the Communist Party -- a recurring theme among officials in recent days. "This unity is our main strategic weapon, which has made it possible for this small island to resist and overcome so many aggressions from imperialism and its allies," he said.

The Cuban leader turned 80 on Aug. 13 but delayed the celebrations to give him time to recover from the surgery. Few details about his condition have been released by Cuba's government.

"It is fine that he didn't come, so that he can recuperate," said Magda Avila, a 70-year-old army veteran at Saturday's march.

Cuban officials insist Fidel Castro is recovering, but U.S. officials say they believe he suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and will not live through the end of 2007. He has appeared thin and pale in photographs and videos released by the government since he temporarily ceded power to his brother.

In the first major military parade held in Havana in a decade, tens of thousands of Cubans marched behind anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and other armored vehicles while MiG fighter jets and helicopter gunships flew overhead at the parade. The crowd of loyalists was more subdued than in other mass events presided by Fidel Castro.

Hundreds of elderly former combatants from the revolutionary struggle sat near the podium where Raul Castro spoke. Thousands of marching troops launched the parade, including special forces in red berets, militia men in blue uniforms and horseback riders wearing the white dress uniform of 19th-century Cuban independence fighters.

Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces, which replaced the military that existed before the Cuban Revolution, traces its roots to Dec. 2, 1956, when 82 rebels landed on the island on a yacht -- the Granma -- that sailed from Mexico.

Only 12 survived the landing and initial skirmishes with President Fulgencio Batista's forces in December 1956. Among the survivors were the two Castro brothers and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who headed for the hills to build a command post for the revolution that drove Batista from power and out of Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959.

Fidel Castro purportedly sent a message to those celebrating his birthday earlier this week, telling a crowd of 5,000 supporters at the opening event Tuesday at a Havana theater that he was too sick to meet with them.

"I direct myself to you, intellectuals and prestigious personalities of the world, with a dilemma," said a note read at the event. "I could not meet with you in a small locale, only in the Karl Marx Theater where all the visitors would fit, and I was not yet in condition, according to the doctors, to face such a colossal encounter."

More than 1,300 politicians, artists and intellectuals from around the globe were attending the tribute to the man who governed Cuba for 47 years. Bolivian President Evo Morales, Haitian President Rene Preval, Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega and Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez were among the guests of honor.

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