HAVANA, (Reuters) – Revolutionary legend Fidel Castro turns 85 tomorrow, still an important figure in his communist-ruled Cuba, but increasingly a fading presence in the life of the country he ran for 49 years.
He gave up his last leadership post this year when he stepped down as head of the ruling Communist Party and has retreated further and further from public view.
His gradual slipping away appears to be a product of choice borne of necessity, but also of a transition plan to wean Cuba from its once near-total dependence on the charismatic Comandante’s leadership.
He is rarely seen or heard from and has stood largely on the sidelines as his younger brother and replacement, President Raul Castro, struggles to reform Cuba’s Soviet-style economy.
“His role has diminished significantly. He has stepped away more so than at any point in the last five years,” said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a Cuba expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
“It may be a case of Raul Castro solidifying his governing style and Fidel willingly receding,” he told Reuters.
Cuba was to celebrate the birthday on Saturday with a nationally televised “serenade” by a lineup of musicians. Organizers said this week they did not know if Fidel Castro would attend personally.
He came to power on New Year’s Day 1959 when his guerrilla forces swept down from the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains to topple U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
As Cuba’s president, he outlasted nine U.S. presidents and five decades of U.S. hostility, but in July 2006 he underwent emergency intestinal surgery and suffered complications from which he never fully recovered.
He handed power provisionally to Raul Castro, then did so officially when he resigned in February 2008 and his younger sibling was elected president by the National Assembly.
The fading of Fidel’s political presence has mirrored a physical decline that was most notable at a Communist Party congress in April when he made just one appearance and had to be helped to his chair on the stage.
The man once famous for his hours-long speeches sat wordlessly as his brother did all the talking in a silent passing of the torch.