- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

HAVANA — Fidel Castro was a no-show yesterday 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 Mr. Castro before dozens of tanks rumbled through the Plaza of the Revolution and jet fighters soared above the capital to mark the 50th anniversary of the formation of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.

Mr. Castro hasn’t been seen in public since July 26, before he underwent secretive intestinal surgery and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother, Raul.

The 80th birthday celebration was delayed from Aug. 13 to last week, the revolution’s anniversary, to give him time to recover, and speculation had been rife whether he would appear.

The military parade, which lasted about two hours, culminated five days of events to celebrate Mr. Castro’s birthday — none of which he attended.

Instead, it was Raul Castro, the island’s defense minister, who stood at the mahogany lectern reviewing the troops during yesterday’s parade.

The parade’s most obvious purpose was to warn the U.S. against taking advantage of Fidel Castro’s illness to attack the island. In the last 15 years the Cuban military has taken on a defensive role, and is trained to repel invaders.

In a speech that lacked his brother’s rhetorical flourishes, Raul Castro reached out to the U.S. government, which has a decades-old trade and travel embargo against the communist-run island. He did not explain the absence of his brother.

“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 U.S. 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.

Raul Castro used the event to underscore cohesion among the Cuban people, the armed forces and the Communist Party — a recurring theme among officials in recent days.

“This unity is our main strategic weapon, which has made it possible for this small island to resist and overcome so many aggressions from imperialism and its allies,” he said.

Cuban officials insist Fidel Castro is recovering, but U.S. officials say they think he suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and will not live through the end of 2007. He has appeared thin and pale in photographs and videos released by the government in recent months.

Fidel Castro purportedly sent a message to those celebrating his birthday last week, telling a crowd of 5,000 supporters at the opening event Tuesday at a Havana theater that he was too sick to meet with them.

“I direct myself to you, intellectuals and prestigious personalities of the world, with a dilemma,” said a note read at the event. “I could not meet with you in a small locale, only in the Karl Marx Theater where all the visitors would fit, and I was not yet in condition, according to the doctors, to face such a colossal encounter.”

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