Wed, Nov 29, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Havana gears up for Fidel celebration on Saturday

AFP , HAVANA

Cuban soldiers stand guard next to a missile launcher during a military rehearsal along Havana's Plaza of the Revolution on Monday. Troops marched across the plaza to prepare for a military parade on Saturday.

PHOTO: AP

Fighter jets soared over anti-aircraft missiles on Monday as Cuba rehearsed for its first military parade in a decade to mark President Fidel Castro's 80th birthday, amid expectation that he may appear in the flesh.

Four months have passed since Castro underwent intestinal surgery and then relinquished power temporarily to his brother and defense minister, Raul Castro. Cuba postponed Fidel's birthday celebrations from Aug. 13 to Saturday, hoping his recovery might be well along.

But Cuban authorities, who do not comment in detail on Castro's health, have stopped saying Fidel will be back on the job full time.

The celebrations have something of a farewell tone for many Cubans.

"I think he looks like he has the will to live, and he has been leading the country from his bed but at the same time preparing people for when he is no longer with us," marcher Silvia Loperon, 53, said.

Since Fidel Castro's July 26 operation, he has only been seen on television and in still photographs.

On Monday, activity was at a fever pitch and the volume was on high at Revolution Square. Military cadets turned out in formation, MiG fighters zoomed beneath the clouds and Soviet-era troop transport helicopters clattered by.

Young workers from several state industries were out marching with their co-workers, waving huge red, white and blue Cuban flags in the cool breeze.

The military parade on Saturday, at which Castro is widely expected -- though his attendance is not officially confirmed -- is the climax of almost a week of festivities.

Some 300,000 people are expected to march, and 2,000 guests from 80 countries, including presidents, ex-presidents and Nobel laureates are due on hand. Allies Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaraguan president-elect Daniel Ortega are to attend, as is Haitian President Rene Preval.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a staunch critic of the US and Castro's key ally in keeping his regime alive economically, has not confirmed and is up for reelection on Sunday. But organizers in Havana said they would not rule out a quick visit by Castro's close friend.

All eyes will be on the podium to see if the grey-bearded leader is present and, if he is, hazard a guess at whether he might be strong enough ever to retake the helm of Latin America's only one-party communist regime.

Whether or not Castro returns to work full time, over the past four months Cuba has grown used to the idea of life without Fidel, the only leader most Cubans have known. He took power in January 1959.

For years, Castro's visage was not seen on billboards bearing government slogans, as if to give it more weight elsewhere. Now, Fidel's face, no longer everyday currency in state media, is on billboards reassuring Vamos bien -- things are going well.

And with the baton passed to Raul Castro, 75, the public profiles of other communist leaders, such as Vice President Carlos Lage, 55, have been raised on state television. Raul Castro has kept a low profile.

Loly, a 63-year-old nurse in Havana, said privately that Fidel Castro was unlikely to return to power.

"Fidel is not coming back. When he is no longer alive, the political line is going to be the same, but let's hope the economy improves," she said.

"The people are not comunista, they are Fidelista," she said.

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