updated 12/5/2006 3:22:00 PM ET 2006-12-05T20:22:00

Government posters say "Fidel Castro for ever" and "80 years more," but Cubans now doubt their bearded leader will again govern their country.

More and more suspect he is close to death, even though they have been told little about his condition, a closely guarded state secret, other than that he underwent emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding in July and is recovering.

"It's strange they have not said anything about Fidel," said Orlando, a telephone company worker and government backer who, like most Cubans, declined to give his full name. "They must have their reasons, but I'm worried. It has been a long time since we heard about him," he said on Tuesday.

Castro's absence from a military parade on Saturday to celebrate his 80th birthday convinced many the revolutionary icon is so gravely ill that he will not return to power. The celebration was originally scheduled for Castro's actual birthday in August but delayed due to his surgery.

Cubans, government supporters or not, turned on their television sets early on Saturday to see if Castro would show up at the parade or at least get word about his condition.

But there was no mention of the leader other than a cursory "Viva Fidel" at the end of a speech by his his brother and designated successor, acting President Raul Castro.

"People are convinced he has cancer," said Joel, a young social worker. "We all expected to see him at the parade, and nobody said a word."

As recently as Friday, Vice President Carlos Lage insisted Fidel Castro would be back to lead Cubans for years to come. He spoke at the end of a conference on Castro's place in history that sounded more like a farewell than a birthday party.

"We have no idea what is going on. Everything is a mystery," said Orestes, waiting out the rain in a central Havana butcher shop that had no meat for sale, only eggs.

"It has been too many years of disinformation," he said.

The U.S. State Department said it assumed that Castro, who led Cuba since a 1959 revolution, was in serious condition.

"He did not appear at his birthday celebration and one can only assume that he (Castro) would have to be in quite serious condition to have missed that," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday.

The last time Cubans saw their leader was in a video on Oct. 28 that shocked the nation with images of a frail and shuffling Castro.

Cubans are accustomed to being told very little about the inner workings of their government on security grounds because their country is said to be under constant threat from its arch-enemy the United States.

But dissidents say uncertainty over the country's political future now that it is clear Fidel Castro is too ill to govern has fueled impatience with the secrecy surrounding his health.

"People are annoyed. They suspect the government is hiding the truth. They feel they are being fooled," said Manuel Cuesta Morua, leader of Arco Progresista, a small opposition group.

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