Castro keeps low profile for 85th birthday and gives celebrations a miss

FIDEL Castro marked his 85th birthday with little fanfare yesterday.

There were no announced celebrations for the ageing revolutionary icon Castro's birthday, though the previous night two dozen musical acts from across Latin America held a concert in his honour.

Organiser Alfredo Vera, said: "What we say in the songs of our invited artists will be little next to what he deserves. Congratulations, beloved and eternal comandante."

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The former president didn't make it to his own birthday bash. This was hardly a surprise since he appears infrequently since he stepped down in 2006, at first temporarily, and then permanently in 2008, due an intestinal illness that he later said nearly killed him.

Nor did his younger brother and presidential successor Raul Castro attend. Instead, first vice-president Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who also delivered the keynote address on Revolution Day, on 26 July, was the highest ranking among several government officials in the presidential seats at Karl Marx Theatre.

A gregarious public speaker as president, Castro is seen publicly these days in official still photographs and video footage, such as recent images showing him with Raul and a convalescing Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez.

Castro seemed unsteady on his feet when he made a surprise showing at a Communist Party Congress in April, walking to his seat with the help of an aide. It was at that same gathering that the party for the first time named a leadership council without him on it, as Fidel left his last official position.

Yet even in retirement, Castro has continued to be a player on the island. Raul has said he consults with his older brother, and some Cuba-watchers say his presence has acted as a brake on reforms that Raul is betting will save the island's economy by loosening some state control.

"I think the issue is how long Fidel is going to linger on and how long he's going to meddle in the government," said Ann Louise Bardach, a veteran Cuba watcher and author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold In Miami, Havana And Washington.

"As long as he is alive and he is compos mentis, he's not going to change his thinking," Bardach said. "He's not going to have an epiphany about economic policy. He's going to do what he always did, which is the preservation of the revolution at all costs."

Castro has publicly backed Raul's reforms, however, even though he expressed ideological dislike for similar openings while president.

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Castro has been a prolific writer of newspaper columns and books, including accounts of the events that led him to take power after the 1959 revolution. Official biographer Katuska Blanco said: "Nobody better than he understands the basic, primordial part of our history. He also has always said that history is made by leaders and the people."