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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 May 2007, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Waiting for Castro
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Cuba

Would he or wouldn't he? Certainly the bosses of the big US TV networks were taking no chances. They sent their star anchor-persons to the Cuban capital, Havana, this week hoping the big May Day parade would see President Fidel Castro return to the public stage.

Thousands attend the Revolution Square May Day parade in Havana
President Fidel Castro has attended the May Day parade for decades

"We should be able to see him from here," said Craig, a Canadian computer technician as he arrived at Revolution Square on May Day morning.

The self-described "international activist" had found a prime spot, in the shadow of the monument to Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, overlooking the plaza.

In front of us, the vast square had been turned into a parade ground.

An orchestra was rehearsing opposite a grandstand framed with posters of Cuban revolutionary heroes.

To the left, you could glimpse the first row of a line of maybe half a million people, ready to start walking when the signal was given.

Just behind us was the VIP area.

Shrouded in mystery

But would Fidel Castro appear?

Would this day mark his return to power after a nine-month saga which, by all accounts, had brought him close to death?

A woman shows a portrait of President Fidel Castro during the May Day parade
Fidel Castro has been recovering from an intestinal ailment

No-one knew. So we looked for clues.

Someone had noticed that the podium was in a slightly different position than usual.

Had it been re-designed so that Mr Castro did not have to walk down any steps?

A rumour was also going about that the president's white-haired head of security had been spotted.

Did that mean that the man he was protecting was close?

And then there were the American television networks.

They had sent their star reporters in and had even been authorised to use satellite broadcast equipment... permission that is rarely given in Cuba.

Would the Cubans have allowed that unless they were certain Fidel Castro was going to show up?

Soon we would know.

The other Castro

Cubans are not famed for their punctuality, but mass rallies are an exception.

Cuban acting President Raul Castro looks at workers in Revolution Square
Raul Castro has been fulfilling many of his brother's duties

At precisely 0800 local time, the most senior members of the government filed onto the podium.

Carlos Lage, a former doctor, now vice president, was there.

So was Ricardo Alarcon, the cigar-smoking head of Cuba's National Assembly.

Then Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, Cuban defence minister, and acting president appeared.

He waved to the crowd.

That, we assumed, meant Fidel was not coming.

We all phoned our editors.

"No, it is not Fidel, it is Raul Castro," shouted one Spanish journalist down the phone, trying to undo the confusion which can arise when two of the most powerful men in a country share the same surname.

'Millions of Fidels'

The march began.

The American TV executives looked a little downcast. As did the solidarity activists.

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro, even unseen and unwell, remains an utterly dominant figure in this country

But if the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who started to throng past were disappointed, they really did not show it. They had a job to do.

"Bush, fascist," shouted the smiling class of 2007 from Havana's Information Technology School.

"Homeland or Death," chanted a group of sportsmen.

Few of them seemed to be looking closely at ranks of the Cuban top brass to see who was there.

Fidel's illness, recuperation, and possible return to power, has become an obsession with Cuba watchers, but Cubans themselves seem almost nonchalant about the whole thing.

That might be partly because they feel that, for better or worse, nothing much is going to change in Cuba, with or without Fidel at the helm.

Certainly Cuban government officials appear to be getting bored of being asked how President Castro is, and whether, and when, and in what capacity he might return to power.

"I haven't the least idea," said a slightly cross Ricardo Alarcon when he was last asked whether Fidel would make a public appearance.

The government's view is that the president should be left in peace to recover as quickly as possible and that the Cuban revolution is about more than one man.

"Cuba has millions of Fidels," is a stock response to the question of what happens here after he is gone.

But not one of those millions is putting their hat in the ring yet, because the reality is that Fidel Castro, even unseen and unwell, remains an utterly dominant figure in this country.

Still in charge

On the eve of the Mayday march he wrote a lengthy article for the morning edition of Granma, the main daily newspaper.

In it he spelt out his views on the dangers of US initiatives to convert corn to ethanol, warning that the policy would turn a food crop for the poor into a fuel for the rich.

The piece was crammed full of statistics, right down to the number of flexing leg movements a sugar cane worker apparently needs to make to produce 12 tons of sugar cane. (The number, incidentally is 36,630).

On the lunchtime news that day, the Cuban presenter had the not unchallenging task of reading the article out in its entirety.

It was the first item and went on for 15 minutes, preceding all the other reports about Mayday.

It might appear that the absent Fidel Castro is only in the background of government here, but it is a government which still hangs on his every word.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 5 May, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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