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Cuba's fading Fidel Castro turns 85 on Saturday

posted 12 Aug 2011, 13:44 by Mpelembe   [ updated 12 Aug 2011, 13:48 ]
Revolutionary Leader Fidel Castro, who turns 85 on Saturday, remains an important figure in Cuba although his presence is fading in the life of the country he has run for 49 years.

SIERRA MAESTRA MOUNTAINS, CUBA. GOV'T TV - Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro turns 85 on Saturday (August 13), still an important figure in his communist-ruled Cuba, but increasingly a fading political force.

Instantly recognizable with his beard and olive-green cap and uniform, the determined Castro came to power in Cuba when he led a guerrilla campaign that, with popular support, ousted right-wing U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Flugencio Batista on January 1, 1959.

From the beginning, Castro had a clear vision of his socialist revolution and the benefits it would have for Cuba.

"The comments will disappear more and more over time- as time passes. The strength of the revolution can be seen, the stability, the unshakeable backing of the people, the straight and just course. The unwavering policy that always looks for justice, fixes the mistakes and the bad things of the past," he said in 1959 shortly before taking power.

The burly, bearded Castro's near-mythic status was sealed by his constant strife with the United States.

His belligerently anti-U.S. stance made him the target of a series of attempts by Washington to remove him from power, including an abortive invasion attempt at Cuba's southern Bay of Pigs in 1961 by more than 1,000 Cuban exiles trained and financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that later resorted to bizarre plots to kill him.

Hailed by admirers for seeking social justice and stamping a small country's mark on the world and reviled by critics as a dictator, Castro continued to make headlines throughout his tenure as the charismatic leader of the Caribbean's largest island.

When the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Havana, Castro aligned himself with Moscow, which for three decades supplied Cuba everything from guns to butter.

The single-minded Castro fought incessantly to keep his model alive, responding to the 1989 fall of communism in Eastern Europe with the slogan 'Socialism or Death'.

"Cuba and the Cuban Revolution will keep fighting and resisting," he said.

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union sunk the island into poverty and angered residents who suffered shortages of basic goods and prolonged power outages.

To relieve social and economic pressures throughout the 90s he reluctantly eased regulations allowing for limited private enterprise and opened the island up to tourism and foreign investment.

To further placate simmering social pressure his government allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to take to sea in flimsy rafts bound for the U.S.

These changes helped Cuba to start a process of recovery but also created new social inequalities and threatened to erode Castro and his ruling Cuban Communist Party's monopoly on power.

As Cuba's president, he outlasted nine U.S. presidents and five decades of U.S. hostility, and in 1997 oversaw the historic visit of Pope John Paul II which was seen by some as a counterpoint to the U.S. policy of seeking to isolate Havana through its economic embargo

At the time the pope had made clear his opposition to Washington's decades-long economic embargo on the island, aimed at forcing Castro into political change.

But concerns over the leader's health came to the fore after a June 23, 2001, fainting fit two hours into a speech at a mass rally.

The brief collapse -- he was back on stage minutes later -- shocked Cubans, and broke taboos on talking about life after him and prompted Castro to ratify his brother Raul as successor.

The leaders health remained in question three years later when at a the end of a televised speech in Santa Clara, Cuba he tripped and fell, this time fracturing his knee and arm.

Castro's health finally gave out in June 2006 when a serious intestinal ailment forced him to hand provisional power over to his younger brother Raul Castro.

He rarely appeared after the illness and when he did he appeared frail and wan.

Despite his health and the official passing of the reins to his brother in 2008, Fidel remained the head of the Cuban Communist Party and was still involved with the country's affairs, keeping close with his protégé Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and then Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

He gave up his last leadership post this year when he stepped down as head of the ruling Communist Party.

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 Castro would attend personally.

At 85-years-old and five years out of power, life without Fidel Castro is not as unimaginable for Cubans as it once was.

He is loved by some and hated by others, but increasingly Raul Castro, 80, has supplanted him as the man considered critical to the future of the Revolution. His importance is magnified by the lack of younger potential leaders under him.