Sun, Aug 13, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Cubans prepare to celebrate absent Castro's birthday

AFP , HAVANA

Cubans hung flags and decorated the "Anti-imperialist Tribunal" stage for a concert within earshot of the US mission in Havana, all to celebrate the 80th birthday of Fidel Castro -- nowhere to be seen in 12 days.

Castro, who turns 80 today, handed over power provisionally after undergoing intestinal surgery to his brother, Raul, 11 days ago. Neither has been seen since.

Yet the birthday party goes on, although Fidel Castro, the country's comandante for 48 years, asked that the celebration be postponed while he recovers.

Cuban officials have insisted regularly over the past week that Castro is recuperating from surgery, and that life in the only Communist country in the Americas was "completely normal," as they did again on Friday.

Castro himself has always answered questions of who would lead a post-Castro Cuba by saying that the revolution would go on with him or without him. Cuba is not peppered with his portraits and statues, as if to say Cuba is something more than Castro.

That, despite wishes of Cuban exiles in Miami, who launched spontaneous street celebrations on news that Castro was ill, but which have since died out.

US officials told Cubans in Miami and in Cuba to stay put and wait to see what comes next, for fear of conflict in Cuba or of mass immigration into the US.

In the US, the "empire" just 150km to the north of the Caribbean island's shores, the top US diplomat for the Americas, Tom Shannon, stressed the need for a "consistent policy" toward Cuba.

"We might be at a moment of great change. We might see the regime hardening, as it attempts to assert its control," Shannon said in Washington on Friday.

The regime that has been in place since Castro marched his bearded revolutionaries into Havana on New Year's Day in 1959 desperately wants normality, and plans for today's birthday celebration a nationwide "cane mobilization," recalling the earliest days of the revolution, when idealistic young men and women cut sugarcane for the good of all.

Castro has asked his birthday be moved back to Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of his return from exile in Mexico aboard the boat Granma, to topple US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

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