Still Ill, Castro Will Miss Birthday Party After All

Cuba's President Fidel Castro turned 80 in August, but postponed his birthday celebration until this week due to emergency surgery. But as Castro recovers — and rumors of his death circulate — he will miss his own birthday festivities, set to last for five days. Robert Siegel talks with Chicago Tribune reporter Gary Marx in Havana.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Havana is celebrating the 80th birthday of Fidel Castro. He actually turned 80 in August, but the festivities were postponed because of the Cuban leader's ill health. On Tuesday night at a huge gathering in Havana's Karl Marx Theater, Castro sent his regrets and had his greeting read to the assembled well-wishers.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

SIEGEL: In the message Castro said that his doctors informed him that he was not ready to participate in such a colossal event.

A reporter, Gary Marx, is in Havana covering the Castro birthday observances for the Chicago Tribune. And Gary Marx, what do people there make of Fidel Castro's conspicuous absence so far from what sounds like kind of a Marxist royal birthday celebration?

Mr. GARY MARX (Chicago Tribune): Well, you know, I think generally, Robert, most Cubans here now understand that Fidel Castro is gravelly ill. I mean, they saw him last about a month ago in a video and he looked very bad and that really shocked Cubans. So I think now Cubans in a way are almost moving past Fidel Castro and thinking about what may come next.

SIEGEL: Most people assume that what will come next will be the leadership of his brother, Raul Castro. What do people there expect?

Mr. MARX: Well, you know, I think there's a lot of hope here for change. The consensus is - among experts - is that Raul Castro is a terrific organizer but lacks the charisma and the historical sort of weight of his brother. And that there are so much pent up expectations here in terms of the economy that really he's going to have to move towards reform.

Again, that's the consensus of what people think. That's what a lot of Cubans hope. They just want their life to be a little bit better. It is so difficult day to day here for people to make ends meet. They're really hoping that over time, Raul Castro will open the economy.

SIEGEL: Now as you said, in August when Fidel Castro was gravely ill, a video was released of him. I remember in one picture he was holding a newspaper of that day. It was almost kind of proof of life you expect to see in a kidnap drama. I gather no such effort at this point.

Mr. MARX: Well, I mean, there was a video a month ago in which, you know, he was shown actually walking, but very gingerly. Listen, he's 80 years old. He had a serious illness. Again, we don't know if it's cancer or diverticulitis or something else, but he's clearly very ill.

And, you know, he could live a month, he could live three months, he may appear tomorrow, he may not appear tomorrow. But Cubans really in a lot of ways, they've accepted the fact that he's terminally ill. He's not going to return to the same presence he had before. And really they're almost looking to the next step.

SIEGEL: When you said, by the way, he may appear tomorrow, he may not appear tomorrow, tomorrow's the big military parade, I gather, that would be an event.

Mr. MARX: Correct. And this is something, you know, really, it's more the international media that's really focusing on this. None of us here at this point know whether he's going to appear. We think he will appear.

We've heard talk that they are shortening the parade from three hours to one hour, because that is, you know, more of the appropriate time in which Fidel could sort of be outside and watch this parade. But nobody who really knows is saying at this point.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something that the Cuban Foreign Minister said yesterday. It's rhetoric. He was saying that the enemies of the Cuban Revolution are counting the minutes, waiting hoping for the death of Fidel Castro, and they don't understand that Fidel isn't just Fidel. Fidel is a people. Fidel is all the men and women in the world who are fighting for a better world.

Do you think that in Cuba, Fidel and the Cuban Revolution are, in fact, so strongly institutionalized at this point that they survive without him, or does the moment that he disappears from the scene, do Cubans just assume life is now going to change quite radically?

Mr. MARX: I mean that's the big question, isn't it Robert. If you look at the historical circumstances of China after Mao and you look at Spain after Franco and there was some sort of psychological break that occurred after these leaders left the scene.

I mean, the revolution has been institutionalized. There's no doubt about it. Raul Castro has put his loyalists in key positions. He's tightened up the control of the Communist Party. So clearly a succession is in place or has already taken place, and they believe the system will survive.

You know, the question really is can Raul Castro afford to open up the economy enough to fulfill people's expectations of a better life without at the same time risking that the political system collapses. That's really the dilemma he faces.

SIEGEL: Well, Gary Marx, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. MARX: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Gary Marx, who is a Latin America correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He's based in Havana.

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