Castro skips a key public appearance

HAVANA -- Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro's failure to appear at a military parade yesterday is further indication that he remains gravely ill and is likely never to return to power, analysts and diplomats say.

Instead, the rally was led by Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother and Cuba's longtime defense minister, who, as acting president, delivered a stinging indictment of American foreign policy yet offered to end decades of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba.


"We are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the long-standing dispute between the United States and Cuba," Raul Castro said in a speech celebrating Fidel Castro's 80th birthday and marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution.

"After almost half a century, we are willing to wait patiently until the moment when common sense prevails in the Washington power circles," he said.


Analysts said it is unlikely that the U.S. would accept Raul Castro's offer because American officials have set several conditions for such talks, including the release of Cuban political prisoners and the conduct of multi-party elections in this Communist nation.

President Bush also has tightened the four-decade trade and travel embargo against Cuba in recent years.

"The position of the U.S. all along allows for no wiggle room," said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group.

But Franciso "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based exile group, encouraged American policymakers to follow up and determine whether Raul Castro is "serious" about a rapprochement.

"This might be a signal to the U.S. that he's ready to negotiate," Hernandez said.

Hernandez also said that Fidel Castro's failure to attend the military parade indicates that Raul Castro is now "firmly in control, and the transition seems already in place."

Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since he underwent intestinal surgery and ceded power July 31. Since then, Castro has appeared frail in photographs and videos distributed by government authorities.

Castro postponed his 80th birthday celebration scheduled for Aug. 13 until yesterday, ostensibly to give him sufficient time to heal and participate in the events. Yet, despite assurances by Cuban authorities that Castro is on the mend, the Cuban leader failed to appear at any of last week's festivities.


On Tuesday, Castro sent a message to thousands of supporters attending a gala event in his honor that he was too ill to join them.

Castro did not send a message yesterday. Raul Castro also did not explain his brother's absence.

"We're concerned, but we know that Fidel is recuperating," said Esperanza Cordero, 62, as she marched in yesterday's parade through Havana's Revolution Plaza. "Fidel is not in the plaza with us, but we feel his presence."

Still, Castro's absence from such an important political event was breathtaking, given his domination of Cuban life for nearly a half-century.

The hourlong parade included cannon fire and a replica of the Granma, the yacht that carried Fidel Castro and 81 others from Mexico to Cuba 50 years ago to begin a guerrilla war that toppled the government in 1959.

Gary Marx writes for the Chicago Tribune.