June 6, 2011
Peter Orsi, El Nuevo Herald
HAVANA -- Raul Castro quietly turned 80 years old Friday, with Cubans hoping the president has enough pep in his step to lift the country from a deep economic malaise.
Neither Castro nor older brother Fidel have traditionally thrown big birthday bashes, and there was no word of any plan for a public celebration.
Government Web portal Cubadebate published a photo essay showing Castro in a variety of poses: smiling in his military uniform, clasping hands with Fidel at a Communist Party Congress, wearing a yarmulke and lighting a menorah during a ceremony with Cuba's Jewish community. But it later removed the essay from its home page.
Cuba is in the process of implementing economic reforms allowing more private sector activity, but some here were disappointed when an April party summit to consider the changes named a leadership consisting mostly of the same graying, old-guard figures.
"Imagine, all those old men," said 52-year-old Havana resident Camila Salgado, referring to the likes of Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 80, and Ramiro Valdes, 79, Castro's principal deputies. "I wonder where are the young people? And it worries me because I don't know if (Castro) will have time to make all the changes."
Even if he is holding any celebrations behind closed doors, Castro was in a good mood on the eve of his 80th, bantering with reporters about his advancing age.
Congratulations came earlier this week from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a key Cuban ally that provides the island with deeply discounted fuel. During a televised Cabinet meeting, Chavez compared Raul to Fidel, whom he frequently refers to as an immortal.
"Raul, 80 years!" Chavez marveled. "He's caught up with Fidel, because Fidel stopped (aging) at 80."
Emma Pedroso, a 49-year-old in Havana's leafy Miramar neighborhood, said she hopes Castro has a happy birthday in the company of his brother and family, and then works hard to implement the reforms.
"I hope things keep moving forward," Pedroso said. "We'll see if this gets fixed a little bit."