IMAGE: Members of the Retazos group release  doves
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Members of the Retazos group release 80 doves to celebrate the 80th birthday of Fidel Castro during a Tuesday ceremony at the Guayasamin foundation in Havana, Cuba.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/29/2006 6:51:42 AM ET 2006-11-29T11:51:42

Ailing leader Fidel Castro on Tuesday told hundreds of admirers who traveled here for his delayed 80th birthday celebration that he is not well enough to meet with them yet.

In a written message read to Latin American artists at the launch of his five-day birthday bash, Castro said his doctors indicated that the performance hall being used did not have the conditions necessary for such a meeting.

Castro may have missed the kickoff, but hundreds of admirers from around the world were on hand to pay homage.

The opening of an art exhibit by Castro’s favorite artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, was the first of five days of events that some guests said feel more like a farewell than a birthday bash.

A “Cuban gala” show was due to be followed on Wednesday with a colloquium on Castro’s place in history, a concert and a military parade in Havana’s main square on Saturday.

Castro has not been out in public since undergoing emergency surgery for an undisclosed illness that forced him to temporarily hand over power to his brother Raul on July 31.

Questions about whether he will be well enough to put in an appearance this week have dominated the run up to the event and overshadowed its celebratory intent.

After the release on Oct. 28 of a video that showed a gaunt, shuffling Castro, many Cubans believe he is too old and too ill to resume governing.

“More than a birthday celebration, what we will see on Dec. 2 will be a farewell,” Ramon, a 55-year-old retired soldier, said in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago.

Castro’s absence did not dampen the enthusiasm of visitors who came from as far away as Ethiopia and Laos for the celebration of a man they view as a champion of Third World countries.

“We came to celebrate his birthday. Twenty-five years ago he did a good job for the Ethiopian people,” said artist Lemma Guya, recalling the thousands of Cuban troops Castro sent to fight in his country and hundreds of doctors who served there.

“Fidel Castro is a representative of oppressed peoples and activist intellectuals,” said left-wing American author and State University of New York professor James Cockcroft. “All of us are worried about his health.”

Officials said 1,500 guests from 80 countries will attend the celebrations, including presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rene Preval of Haiti and president-elect Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Castro’s top ally and equally fierce critic of the United States, is not expected to make the event because he faces a national election on Sunday.

The celebrations were originally scheduled for Castro’s actual birthday on Aug. 13.

Due to his illness he asked that they be postponed until Dec 2, the 50th anniversary of the day he and a group of followers landed in Cuba to start a guerrilla movement that seized power in a 1959 revolution.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Castro turns 80

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