Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-CUBA: (When) Will Fidel Return?

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jul 25 2007 (IPS) - President Fidel Castro will not be attending the Jul. 26 celebrations, one of the most important annual commemorations of the Cuban Revolution, and this prolongs uncertainty over whether or not he will resume his official functions until the forthcoming elections.

The official newspaper Granma announced on Wednesday in a front page article that the Revolution Day celebrations in Camagüey, 534 kilometres from Havana, would be led by Army General Raúl Castro, First Vice President of the Council of State and Council of Ministers.

Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and second in command, has been standing in for the 80-year-old Cuban leader since Jul. 31, 2006, when Fidel underwent the first of a series of operations for an intestinal ailment. However, official circles in Cuba, including the press, avoid referring to Raúl as “acting” or “interim” president.

“What’s important is that there hasn’t been a power vacuum in the country, and everything is working… What Raúl is called is of minor importance, for now,” an analyst close to government circles, who wished to remain anonymous, told IPS. The source declined to make any conjectures about the future.

Jul. 26 commemorates an attack on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes barracks in 1953 by a group of young men, commanded by Fidel Castro, which included Raúl, his younger brother, now 76.

The attack was a military fiasco, but it is regarded as the starting point of the armed insurrection that ended on Jan. 1, 1959 with the victory of the Cuban Revolution. Since then, the date has been celebrated annually with official rallies, at which Fidel Castro has delivered speeches about the state of Cuba and its international relations.

Last year the festivities took place in the eastern city of Bayamo, where President Castro spoke about the success of a series of social programmes carried out in Cuba in recent years, and compared them with the transition proposals for the country made by the U.S. government of President George W. Bush.

On that occasion, Castro spoke for over two hours and then travelled to Holguín, a province bordering Bayamo, to inaugurate a series of electric generators worth over 50 million dollars, which increased the electricity generation capacity of the province.

Five days later, in a written proclamation to the people of Cuba, Castro acknowledged that his health had suffered a breakdown which had forced him to undergo “a complicated surgical operation,” and announced that he had “provisionally” delegated to Raúl Castro his functions at the head of the government, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).

He designated a team made up of Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, Health Minister José Ramón Balaguer Cabrera, members of the Political Bureau of the PCC José Ramón Machado Ventura and Esteban Lazo Hernández, and Francisco Soberón Valdés, President of the Central Bank of Cuba, to take over other responsibilities.

Since then the Cuban leader has only been seen by the Cuban people in photographs and videos broadcast on state television. However, since Mar. 29 he has written about his ideas on national and international affairs in articles published by the official press under the heading of Reflections from the Commander-in-Chief.

In his latest column, published on Tuesday, President Castro admitted that three Cuban competitors and a coach who were taking part in the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro had defected, and said they would become “mercenary athletes in a consumer society.”

In his view, boxers Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara, who left the Cuban delegation last weekend, probably accepted millions of dollars from “a mafia” that buys and promotes Cuban boxers in Germany.

Shortly before, gymnastics trainer Lázaro Lamelas Ramírez and handball player Rafael Da Costa Capote had also deserted.

According to an official history of the Jul. 26 commemorations, this Thursday’s in Camagüey will be the first such occasion when Fidel Castro will not be present at the main rally, and the third at which the closing speech will be delivered by his brother Raúl, who spoke at the celebrations in 1994 and 1997.

In 1992, the commemoration was held on Sept. 5, after Castro’s return from a visit to Spain to attend the Second Ibero-American Summit. During that trip he also travelled around Spain, and for the first time visited the house in Galicia where his father was born. His father, Ángel Castro, died in 1956.

Analysts are now focusing their attention on the general elections which are to begin in October with the election of delegates to the municipal assemblies, and will continue at an as yet unspecified date with elections for provincial representatives and deputies to the unicameral parliament, known as the National Assembly.

The process is due to finish next year, with elections to the National Assembly (at present made up of 609 members) and to the state executive bodies: the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, both of which are currently presided over by Fidel Castro.

The Cuban leader was elected to these offices in 1976, when the present institutions were adopted, and has been re-elected since for successive five-year periods.

In March, Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly, told journalists at the Conventions Palace that he was sure that Fidel Castro would be fit enough to stand for re-election and continue to assume his responsibilities.

On Mar. 16, 2003, when he was re-elected head of state for another five-year mandate, Castro surprised his supporters by acknowledging, in parliament, the fragility and transitory nature of every human being, reflections that were most unusual, coming from him:

We know that time passes and energy fails, he said. Perhaps the incessant struggle trained us for such a long battle. I think the secret could be the strength of a great ideal, endless enthusiasm and love for our noble cause which has grown with every day of life. But life has its inexorable laws, he added.

I promise that I will remain with you, if you so wish, as long as I am aware of being useful, and if nature does not decide otherwise. Not a minute less, not a second more. Now I understand that it was not my destiny to come into the world in order to rest at the end of my life, Fidel Castro concluded on that occasion.

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