Sun, Aug 14, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Castro still a force in Cuba at 85

AP, HAVANA

Former Cuban president Fidel Castro marked his 85th birthday outside of the public spotlight yesterday, with little fanfare around the aging revolutionary icon who is rarely seen in public these days, but still casts a long shadow over Cuban society.

There were no announced celebrations of Castro’s birthday, though the previous night two dozen musical acts from across Latin America held a concert in his honor.

“What we say in the songs of our invited artists will be little next to what he deserves,” Alfredo Vera, one of the organizers, said late on Friday. “Congratulations, beloved and eternal comandante.” The former president did not make it to his own birthday bash — hardly a surprise since he appears infrequently since he stepped down in 2006, at first temporarily, and then permanently in 2008, due to an intestinal illness that he later said nearly killed him.

Nor did his younger brother and successor, Cuban President Raul Castro, attend. Instead, Cuban First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who also delivered the keynote address on Revolution Day on July 26, was the highest-ranking among several government officials in the presidential seats at Karl Marx Theater.

A gregarious public speaker as president, Fidel Castro is seen publicly these days in official still photographs and video footage, such as recent images showing him with Raul and a convalescing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Fidel Castro seemed unsteady on his feet when he made a surprise showing at a Communist Party Congress in April, walking to his seat with the help of an aide. It was at that same gathering that the party for the first time named a leadership council without him on it, as he left his last official position.

Yet even in retirement, Fidel Castro has continued to be a player on the island. Raul has said he consults with his elder brother, and some Cuba-watchers say his presence has acted as a brake on reforms that Raul is betting will save the country’s economy by loosening some state control.

“I think the issue is how long [Fidel] is going to linger on and how long he’s going to meddle in the government,” said Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba watcher.

“As long as he is alive and he is compus mentis, he’s not going to change his thinking,” Bardach said. “He’s not going to have an epiphany about economic policy. He’s going to do what he always did, which is the preservation of the revolution at all costs.”

Fidel has publicly backed Raul’s reforms, however, even though he expressed ideological dislike for similar openings while president.

In retirement, Fidel Castro has been a prolific writer of newspaper columns and a series of books, including autobiographical accounts of the events that led him to take power after the 1959 revolution.

“Nobody better than he understands the basic, primordial part of our history,” official biographer Katuska Blanco said in an interview aired Friday on state TV. “He also has always said that history is made by leaders and the people.”

Fidel Castro is currently on a hiatus from the opinion pieces, publishing just one column since late May, though it is not unusual or unprecedented for his pen to go silent for extended periods.

Omara Portuondo, the Grammy-winning singer of Buena Vista Social Club fame, was the headliner for Friday night’s show, dubbed the “Serenade of Fidelity.”

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