The former President of Cuba and revolutionary legend, Fidel Castro, turned 85 last Saturday, a milestone marked by a range of cultural festivities on the island, from which he was noticeably absent.

After handing over power in July 2006 to his younger brother, Raúl, 80, followed by intestinal surgery and a lengthy recuperation period that is most likely ongoing, the “Comandante” effectively retired from holding political office, though he arguably did not retire from political life. Since he resurfaced in early 2007, to remind his people and Cuba-watchers of his presence and influence, he has been a self-styled “soldier of ideas,” writing a series of strongly worded opinion pieces on international affairs in Granma, the official Cuban news organ.

His last public appearance was at the end of the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba on April 19, when he effectively ceded the maximum leadership of the party – and therefore the nation – to the new First Secretary, Raúl. At that time, Raúl had intoned, “Fidel is Fidel and he does not need any post in order to occupy forever a paramount place in the history, in the present and in the future of the Cuban nation.”

In many ways, since his illness in 2006, Cubans have accepted Fidel’s withdrawal from the exercise of power in Cuba. Although, after almost a half century of Fidel as supreme leader, omnipresent and indefatigable, there is a bit of a paradox in his being around and yet, somehow, absent. For the average Cuban who has grown up and lived under Fidel’s long reign and absolute personification of revolutionary Cuba, it has therefore been a period of psychological adjustment as much as it has been one of social and economic uncertainty.

In the past few months, moreover, Mr Castro has been keeping a relatively lower public profile. July 3 was the last time that one of his ‘Reflections’ was published, dedicated to President Hugo Chávez’s cancer treatment. Around the same time, he also made his last television appearance at Mr Chávez’s side. Indeed, during this period, Fidel appears to have been intimately involved with the illness of Cuba’s Venezuelan ally, his close friend and revolutionary protégé, whilst ironically, there are questions about his own well-being.

Meanwhile, Raúl has been grappling with Cuba’s serious economic problems and the challenges of a new process of reform and what he calls the “systematic rejuvenation” of the government. And in overseeing a process of structural change aimed at economic survival and recovery, Raúl appears to be seeking to correct some of the errors of the past, even as he seems intent on guaranteeing the future of the Revolution.

Notably, Raúl has emphasized on several occasions that his older brother continues to have a central role in the Cuban leadership and in the development of the strategy for change, all in the context of the revolutionary struggle. Fidel, for his part, has also taken pains to highlight the consensus he and Raúl share.

Michael Shifter, president of the influential Washington-based think-tank, the Inter-American Dialogue, observes, albeit from a distance, “Raúl is in charge now. Fidel gave him the power to make decisions, but he also set limits, especially for reforms which are slowly moving forward, with great caution.” Mr Shifter nevertheless makes it clear that there is nothing to indicate a significant difference of opinion between the two brothers.

Thus, while Raúl appears to be trying to define the future and his own role in a process that is still being played out and which could yet be historic for Cuba, Fidel’s shadow, as Raúl himself acknowledged in April, continues to loom large over the present and future of Cuba. After all, he not only represents for the majority of Cubans the old ideals of the Revolution but is also the very incarnation of the Revolution.

“Fidel belongs in the history books,” is the less kind opinion of dissident Cuban economist, Oscar Espinosa, not quite meant in the same way as Raúl’s words at the end of the Congress. Fidel Castro is 85. The Cuban Revolution is 52. The clock is ticking for both of them. It remains to be seen, however, as change inevitably, sooner or later, comes to Cuba, whether Fidel and the Revolution will simply be consigned to history or whether they will endure as the foundation stones of an evolving Cuba.

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