Cuban President Fidel Castro was a no-show on Saturday at a major military parade that doubled as his 80th birthday celebration, raising questions about whether the ailing leader will ever return to power as his public absence begins taking on a tone of permanence.
Many Cubans had hoped for at least a glimpse of the Castro at Saturday's parade, where scores of olive-camouflaged tanks rumbled through Havana's Plaza of the Revolution and jet fighters soared above.
But it was Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro, who Fidel Castro ceded his powers to four months ago, standing at the mahogany lectern reviewing troops on the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. The elder Castro's absence came after he made no appearances all week during celebrations were postponed from his actual birthday on Aug. 13 to allow him time to recover from intestinal surgery.
Reading a half-hour speech that lacked his brother's rhetorical flourishes, the uniformed Raul Castro reached out for dialogue with the US government in the latest sign he has consolidated his leadership during his brother's absence.
"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, as long as the US respects Cuba's sovereignty," said Raul Castro, who turned 75 in June.
"After almost half a century, we are willing to wait patiently until the moment when common sense prevails in Washington power circles," he added.
The defense minister also said the Cuban people "shall continue to consolidate our nation's military invulnerability" based on the island's "War of All the People" doctrine, which calls on all able-bodied citizens to take up arms in the event of an invasion by a foreign power.
US State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said it is incumbent on the Cuban government to take democratic steps first.
"The dialogue that needs to take place is one between the Cuban regime and the Cuban people about the democratic future of the island," Hironimus said on Saturday. "Any deepening of our engagement with Cuba depends on that dialogue and the Cuban regime's willingness to take concrete steps toward a political opening and a transition to democracy."
Since breaking off diplomatic relations in 1961, the US has maintained a policy to undermine Cuba's one-party authoritarian rule through a trade embargo and restrictions on US travellers to the Caribbean country.
Raul Castro's words echoed those he spoke less than three weeks after his brother made him acting president on July 31, telling the Communist Party newspaper Granma that Cuba is open to normalized relations with the US as long as there are no threats.
Many longtime Cuba watchers consider Raul the more pragmatic of the Castros and believe he is likely to communicate better with the US government.
"The military is Cuba's most effective interlocutor with the United States," Cuba military expert Hal Klepak of the Royal Military College of Canada said on the eve of the parade. "They have prestige with the Pentagon and they are already in contact with the US on issues including [the US naval base at] Guantanamo, on weather, migration and drug interdiction."
Fidel Castro did not attend any of the events honoring his birthday. He has not been seen in public since July 26.
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