HAVANA: Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro turns 90 on Saturday in an island transformed from the one he led for half a century.
Both loved as a hero and hated as a dictator, Castro is one of the giant figures of modern history.
He defied 10 US presidents during his 48 years in power, but in the decade since he stepped aside Cuba has become a different world. His sworn foe, the United States, is no longer officially Cuba’s enemy.
Now white-bearded and frail, Castro was a strapping 32-year old in green fatigues when he led a rebel force that drove out dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
His image as a revolutionary warrior storming down from the mountains, rifle in hand, stirred his admirers’ imagination. His communist policies and iron-fisted treatment of rivals drew the hostility of the United States and other Western powers.
His voice used to boom out over Havana in speeches that lasted hours. Nowadays he is rarely heard from, though his face still smiles out from countless billboards across the Caribbean island.
No official public events were scheduled to mark his birthday and there was so far no word from the former president himself, who spends his days out of sight at home.
But his friends and enemies on the streets of Havana and beyond are fully aware of the significance of the date.
A birthday visit by Cuba’s top regional ally, socialist President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, has not been ruled out.
“We will be celebrating the 90th birthday of that immortal man,” Maduro said.
State newspapers on the communist island have for days been printing pictures and articles about him to mark his 90th year. Concerts have been played in his honor.
Fidel Castro retired from public life in 2006 due to ill health. He formally transferred the presidency to his brother Raul in 2008.
But Fidel continues to exert “an indirect influence through certain figures in the regime who are not comfortable with the reforms that Raul has made,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a political scientist at Oxford University.
Raul, 85, has gradually opened up Cuba’s economy and foreign relations. He has restored diplomatic relations with Fidel’s old foe, the United States.
Such reforms were unthinkable when Cuba was a pro-Soviet state on the United States’
doorstep during the Cold War.
Fidel gave free healthcare, housing and schooling to citizens on a poor island.
“Fidel is everything. He is sport, he is culture. He is rebellion. If Cubans are rebels, it is thanks to Fidel,” said Manuel Bravo, a 48-year-old glazier.
But the former president’s regime is also accused by rights groups of brutally repressing dissent by torturing and jailing opponents.
“I will remember him as a dictator,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, 71, an anti-Castro dissident who was one of 75 opponents jailed in the “black spring” of 2003.
“He is the man of ‘E’s: egomaniacal, egotistical, egocentric,” Roque said.
“I don’t know whether I will be able to wish him a happy birthday.”
Castro has reportedly suffered from intestinal illness in recent years. But official secrecy shrouds his condition.
He last appeared in public on April 19 at the close of the Cuban Communist Party Congress.
Dressed in a blue tracksuit and speaking in a trembling voice, he seemed to say goodbye.
“Soon I’ll be like all the rest,” he said. “Everyone’s turn comes.”
After US President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March, Fidel Castro recalled the island’s long enmity with the US, including Washington’s backing for the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
His bitterness over that botched CIA plot played a part in pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. The Soviet Union agreed to his request to send ballistic missiles to Cuba.
“For most Latin Americans, Fidel Castro represents heroic resistance to the hegemony and control of the United States,” said Peter Hakim, an international affairs expert at Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank.
“But I do not think he will be seen as a hero for much longer… The modern world has left him and Cuba behind.”