Cubans got a double dose of assurances Sunday that their Communist leadership remains in control: the first photos of President Fidel Castro since he underwent surgery two weeks ago and a ceremonial airport appearance by his brother and acting leader, Raul Castro.
It was Fidel Castro’s 80th birthday, and his 75-year-old brother performed his first public function since taking the reins of power July 31 by greeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with a salute and a bear hug on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport near Havana.
Despite those signs of life in the leadership, the ailing Castro appeared to be preparing Cubans for a long recuperation or even his death.
“To affirm that the recovery period will take a short time and that there is no risk would be absolutely incorrect,” said his message printed in the Communist Party youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde. “I ask you all to be optimistic, and at the same time to be ready to face any adverse news.”
He thanked Cubans for their “loving support” and proclaimed that “the country is marching on and will continue marching on perfectly well.”
Chavez, Castro’s closest ally and benefactor, had announced a day earlier in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, that he was bringing a cake and a gift for the ailing Cuban head of state, despite the Havana hierarchy’s decision after Castro’s surgery that celebration of his milestone would be postponed to Dec. 2. That is the 50th anniversary of the return to Cuba of Castro’s rebels from Mexican exile and the start of the guerrilla operations that brought them to power two years later.
Chavez said he was giving Castro a coffee cup that once belonged to Latin American liberation hero Simon Bolivar. The Venezuelan leader was apparently “re-gifting,” as he said during his Saturday speech that the cup had been given to him by Ecuadoran officials during his visit to their country in May.
Many Cuban cultural figures also defied orders to postpone the party. At the huge outdoor Anti-Imperialist Stage built in front of the U.S. Interests Section along the Malecon seaside thoroughfare, musicians performed late Saturday and into the wee hours of the president’s birthday, the Prensa Latina news agency reported.
Aside from Chavez’s reported visit, little else was known about how the ill Cuban leader spent the day, presumably still bedridden and recuperating from the operation to stem intestinal bleeding. Castro has deemed his condition “a state secret,” and reports of his convalescence have been vague and contradictory.
In an apparent effort to confirm that he is alive, though, the first pictures of the only leader most Cubans have ever known showed him talking on the phone, making a fist and holding up a Saturday newspaper supplement recounting the accomplishments of his 80 years. The four photos were credited to Estudios Revolucion, a historical documentation team that is part of Castro’s administration.
Castro appears alert and focused in the pictures, in which he is wearing an Adidas warm-up jacket in the red, white and blue colors of the Cuban flag instead of his trademark olive drab.
A day earlier, the Communist Party newspaper Granma quoted an unidentified friend as saying a visit to the self-styled Maximum Leader found Castro walking, engaging in animated conversation and even doing some work. The report deemed Castro “as strong as the caguairan,” a hardwood tree that grows in eastern Cuba’s tropical forests. “Like the tree emblematic of Cuba, he is upright, strong, tough, ideal for building lasting works,” the newspaper said.
Neither Fidel nor Raul Castro had been seen in public since the July 26 ceremonies in Santiago de Cuba marking the 53rd anniversary of the start of their revolution. Five days later, Castro announced he would undergo surgery and hand to his brother the duties of president, commander in chief of the army and head of the Communist Party.
Castro also used the occasion of his birthday to send greetings to the Five Heroes, Cubans convicted in 2001 of working as unregistered foreign agents in Florida and sentenced to long terms in maximum-security penitentiaries in distant states.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last week denied them a new trial, which defense attorneys had sought on the grounds that the men were tried in a tainted venue, Miami, months after the Cuban American community here lost its emotional custody battle over young castaway Elian Gonzalez. Alluding to the appeals court ruling, Castro promised in his message to the five that “we will triumph over the monstrous injustice.”
Leftist and Communist leaders around the world sent greetings, but the messages from the United States were laced with political castigations.
“Fidel has been a ruthless dictator for almost 50 years and, as another birthday comes and goes, the Cuban people know that freedom from this despot is getting so close,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban exile, said in a statement in which she expressed hope “that this will be his last birthday oppressing the God-given rights of the Cuban people.”
Times special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.