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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 July 2007, 21:29 GMT 22:29 UK
Absent Fidel 'in Cubans' hearts'
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Camaguey

Last year's 26 July Revolution Day celebrations were the last time the man who has led this Caribbean island since the revolution in 1959, President Fidel Castro, was seen in public.

Raul Castro gestures above a carving of his brother, Fidel
Raul Castro says his brother's health is improving

Traditionally, Fidel Castro uses the Revolution Day rally to make keynote speeches to the nation.

For weeks there had been speculation that the "commander-in-chief", as he is still known in Cuba, might use the event to make his comeback.

This year's rally took place in the central city of Camaguey, kicking off at 0730 in the morning. By then, an estimated 100,000 people had packed into the main square.

Those nearest to the stage wore official red T-shirts, and almost everyone had a Cuban flag to wave. But without Fidel Castro present, the mood appeared somewhat subdued.

"OK, he's not here, but Fidel is in our hearts and we continue to follow his ideas," one man told me. Like many Cubans, he was reluctant to give his name.

He added: "Nobody can live forever and one day he will have to be replaced by a younger generation. But Fidel's ideals remain unchanged and we will continue to follow them."

'Conceptual changes'

It is now almost a year since the country's defence minister, Raul Castro, took over as caretaker president.

So far, life on the island remains largely unaltered. It was a smooth and calm transition. There were no street protests, nor were there demands for reform of what is one of the world's last Communist states.

Crowds at the Camaguey celebrations

In his Camaguey address, Raul Castro acknowledged there were problems with the economy and hinted at major structural and ideological reforms to come - at some point in the future.

"Structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced," he announced. But only after careful analysis.

Not long after taking over the temporary reins of power last year, Raul set up a commission to look into the question of property right but it has two to three years to produce its findings.

On foreign policy matters, Raul Castro reiterated an earlier offer to sit down with the US to discuss ways of normalising relations. Although he stipulated this would happen only after the US presidential elections next year.

"If the United States authority were to finally desist from their arrogance and decide to converse in a civilised manner, it would be a welcome change," he said. "Otherwise, we are ready to continue confronting their policy of hostility, even for another 50 years if needs be."

'Nation on standby'

Eighty-year-old Fidel Castro has spent the past year recuperating from a series of operations.

He was believed to have been suffering from diverticulitis, an inflammation which causes internal bleeding.

Recent pictures suggest he is putting weight back on and could be on the mend.

Even without appearing in public, he is making his influence felt through frequent newspaper editorials.

There are still no indications, though, about his future plans.

As one Cuban told me, the nation is on standby mode, waiting to see what comes next.

In October an electoral process begins which culminates early next year in the selection of a new National Assembly. This, in turn, will select the Council of State.

At that point the question of Cuba's permanent leadership ought to become clearer.

Raul Castro addresses Cubans at a rally

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