A public celebration to mark Revolution Day has begun in this central Cuban city with no sign of Fidel Castro.
The 83-year-old ex-president had a made a string of appearances at small public events in recent weeks, fueling speculation he could turn up for Monday's event in Santa Clara.
Instead, Raul Castro — who succeeded his older brother as president, first temporarily, then permanently — presided over the event.
A spate of appearances by Fidel Castro after four years of near-total seclusion has Cubans buzzing: Could the official Revolution Day ceremony Monday be Fidel's coming out party?
It would be easy for younger brother Raul to make headlines in a major Revolution Day speech in this central Cuban city. All he has to do is bring up the 52 political prisoners he has agreed to release, or discuss plans to open the island's communist economy.
But nothing Cuba's 79-year-old president says will mean as much as whether Fidel is standing by his side.
"If Fidel is there it will cause a huge stir. It will be very important," said Wayne Smith, a former top American diplomat in Havana and senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
He said the elder Castro brother's presence would make clear to many in Washington that the 83-year old revolutionary still has a strong hand in affairs of state. That, Smith says, would not be viewed positively by those waiting for Cuba to allow more economic, political and social changes.
"The thought has been that they are moving toward reforms under Raul, but that they might be moving more energetically if not for the fact that Fidel Castro is still sitting on the porch and Raul is afraid he might not be enthusiastic," Smith said. "If Fidel does come back, that could suggest they aren't going to move as fast as they should with these changes."
Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for nearly a half century until he was forced to step down in 2006 and undergo emergency intestinal surgery, turning power over — first temporarily, then permanently — to his brother.
Since then, he has lived in near total seclusion. Until this month, that is.
The former president has seemingly been everywhere, most recently making an emotional visit Saturday to a town outside Havana to honor fallen revolutionary fighters. There he read a statement that was right out of his much-weathered revolutionary playbook, turning Cuba's tortured half-century conflict with the United States into a positive.
"The simple fact of maintaining this fight for such a long time provides proof of what a small country can achieve against a gigantic, imperial power," Castro said after laying a wreath at a mausoleum for his comrades. In other appearances Castro has visited economists, scientists, diplomats and even dolphins at the national aquarium, his every move captured on national television and in state-run newspapers.
State media have even taken to calling him "commander in chief" again, a title he has largely shunned since stepping down.
Fidel Castro has used the publicity spree to warn that the world stands on the precipice of a nuclear war — pitting the United States and Israel on one side, and Iran on the other.
So far he has stayed clear of commenting on current events in Cuba, perhaps in an effort to avoid the appearance of interfering with his brother's work running the country. But merely attending Revolution Day celebrations would be an overtly political act.
While Raul Castro has remained loyal to his brother's communist ideals, he has overseen the handover of tens of thousands of acres of government land to individual farmers, allowed some small-level entrepreneurship in a country where the state controls well over 90 percent of the economy, and has spearheaded an anti-corruption drive in which several senior officials were fired.
He has also tried to scale back unsustainable subsidies in a system where most people earn low government wages but receive free health care and education, near-free housing and transportation and deeply discounted basic food.
The reforms — while halting — have allowed Raul to emerge from the shadow of his more famous brother, though opinion is divided on how much influence Fidel wields behind the scenes.
The government has said nothing about whether Fidel will be on hand for Monday's celebration, which commemorates the date in 1953 when the Castros led an attack on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago and a smaller military outpost in the nearby city of Bayamo. The operation failed spectacularly, but Cubans consider it the beginning of the revolution that culminated with dictator Fulgencio Batista's ouster on New Year's Day 1959.
Cuba celebrates Revolution Day in a different part of the island each year.
This year it is Santa Clara's turn, and the city offers an intriguing backdrop.
The speeches will be held at a towering outdoor memorial housing the remains of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Santa Clara is also home to Guillermo Farinas, a dissident who recently ended a 134-day hunger strike after the government agreed to release the last remaining opposition leaders jailed since 2003. At least 15 have been let go and sent to Spain so far, with the rest expected to follow in coming months.
Security around the site was stepped up Sunday night, with police closing roads and directing traffic out of the area. Police also stood guard on every highway overpass leading into the city.
While many think Fidel Castro's appearance Saturday means it was less likely he would also show up in Santa Clara, there were some signs he might attend.
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced he would attend the festivities, he wrote that he wanted to share the day "with Raul, with Fidel and with the Cuban people." Chavez canceled the visit shortly before he was scheduled to leave Sunday, citing rising tension between his country and neighboring Colombia.
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