Cuba Marks Belated Birthday for Ailing Castro

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Cuba will mark Fidel Castro's birthday Saturday — he turned 80 in August — but it's unclear how active a role the ailing leader will take in his own celebration. Gary Marx of The Chicago Tribune sets the scene from Havana for Scott Simon.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the mystery of a famous photograph solved.

But first, Fidel Castro has so far not appeared at an elaborate military parade in Havana today that was also to be his 80th birthday tribute. The event was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Cuba's revolutionary armed forces.

The original birthday celebration was postponed this summer after emergency surgery forced Mr. Castro to temporarily cede power to his brother, Defense Minister Mr. Raul Castro. Because Mr. Castro had himself suggested today's tribute could also mark his birthday, there had been speculation he might appear.

Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune is at the event. He joins us from Havana. Gary, thanks for being with us.

GARY MARX: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: And are they - could conceivably Mr. Castro just be a big finale or is there a feeling that he is just not going to be able to appear at today's parade?

MARX: No, he is not going to show up, Scott. The parade is just ending right now and he hasn't appeared, and really the parade was led by Raul Castro, the defensive minister and the interim leader of the country right now.

SIMON: So Gary, what's your assessment and those of the people around you of the significance of the fact that Mr. Castro didn't appear today?

MARX: Well, I think it confirms what all of us really know, which is that he is very, very ill. It doesn't mean that he is going to you die in the next month or so, but he could, and really the succession or, as the Cuban's say, the continuity of power now has taken place and Raul Castro is firmly in control.

SIMON: So there is no longer a feeling that this succession of power was temporary, that it's marked a real passage in Cuban history now?

MARX: I absolutely believe that. I think a new era has begun. And the fact that Fidel was not here today really, you know, symbolically shows that. I mean we were all speculating the media that live here that he was going to make the best effort possible to get here.

The fact that he is not here, again, doesn't mean he is on deaths door. But it does mean that he is very, very ill. He could live, you know, a week, he could live a month, he could live a year. But literally, you know, he is stepping back from power. And Raul and the other leaders around him are now have now taken over.

SIMON: And what pressures does Raul Castro now face to hold onto power without his brother there to take an active role? And even among the circle of younger Cuban leaders.

MARX: Well, there is tremendous pressure on him, as you know, Scott. You know, Cuba - I mean Raul Castro is not Fidel Castro. He doesn't have the historical weight, and he doesn't have the charisma, and Cubans understand that.

So there is really tremendous pressure for him to open up the economy. I'm not saying right away, but over a period of time, to improve the living standards here. People are really tired of living under really tough conditions.

SIMON: And inevitable pressure about elections?

MARX: Oh, I don't think so, I think that this is a whole different story. And the one thing that Raul did say in his speech - it was interesting - he blasted the U.S. in much of his speech here, but he did hold out an olive branch. He said he would be willing to negotiate with the U.S. government on equal terms.

Now, he's said that before, but to say that in this speech here, I think he maybe sending some sort of signal. So that's the situation right now.

SIMON: Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune speaking with us from Havana. Thanks for being with us, Gary.

MARX: Thanks, Scott, it was a pleasure.

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