WASHINGTON — Short of a medical miracle, Fidel Castro will likely celebrate his 80th birthday this Sunday in seclusion, recuperating from what his government has described as stomach surgery.
His regime has moved quickly to minimize the impact of his absence from Cuba's stage, and rumors of stomach cancer have been forcefully denied.
There has been minimal disruption since the government announced a "temporary" turnover of power to his (marginally) younger brother, 75-year-old Raul.
Is Fidel really recuperating rapidly, as Cuba's government says?
Will the revolutionary return?
There is no independent way to verify that claim. No outside reporters have been permitted into the country since the aging leader's illness was announced last week. Castro has not been seen publicly. No interviews have been granted.
The revolutionary leader is surely receiving excellent medical care (he once gave me a personal tour of Havana's Medical School to show off their progress). But at his age, recovery from major stomach surgery — if that is indeed what he experienced — can be complicated.
Despite some anecdotal uneasiness among his followers, so far, there has been broad acceptance of his absence from government. Could this change of the hand-off become permanent? And how would the country be different if Raul were the real, rather than the acting, president?
What kind of leader would Raul be?
Given his age, in any case, Raul would likely be a transitional figure. He is regarded as a good manager and in this interim period, apparently prefers to rule as part of a collective, backed up by a trio of prominent leaders at least two decades younger.
Longtime observers suggest that with real power, Raul might be more flexible than his older brother about economic reform: it was Raul in the post-Soviet 1990s who opened Cuba up to foreign investment and tourism. At the time, Havana was badly in need of dollars to replace Moscow's subsidies.
But now, because of the patronage of Cuba's oil-rich ally, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, getting the economics "right" is less critical for whoever is running Cuba. Despite energy shortages and the continuing U.S. embargo, Cubans appear to have adequate food and have been pace-setters in Latin America for social services, such as medical care and education.
‘Tough little character’
Raul has long been tagged with the reputation of being ruthless. This is partly because in 1959, during the revolution, he was his brother's enforcer and occasional executioner. More recently, as the head of Cuba's military, he sent very different signals during meetings with retired U.S. military officers.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a lecturer at West Point and NBC military analyst, spent seven hours a few years ago with both Castro brothers. McCaffrey, traveling with an American think tank, was in Havana to send a post-9/11 message: Don't even THINK about harboring terrorists 90 miles off the coast of the U.S.
McCaffrey told NBC News that during a seven-hour meeting, "Ninety-five percent of the conversation was dominated by Fidel, four percent by Raul."
“I sort of liked him. He's sort of a tough little character,” McCaffrey said about Raul. “He struck me as much more engaged. Fidel was obsessive, was a little delusional, couldn’t stop monologues and harangues. Raul is far more thoughtful — wanted to hear war stories about Desert Storm, sort of a likable guy.”
That said, Raul is still the chief political enforcer in what McCaffrey described as a "communist thugocracy."
As Cuba adjusts to whether this is a temporary or more permanent transition, so have Castro's arch-enemies in Washington. The Bush administration is already planning to make it easier for the approximately 3,500 Cubans a year who want to rejoin families in the United States to emigrate rapidly.
Currently, the wait can be as long as a dozen years. Any change in the carefully calibrated migration agreements will be viewed with suspicion in Havana.
For now, the future of Cuba's leader remains a mystery, known only to his immediate family and a small group of trusted government officials.
The fact that the health of the world's longest-serving head of government —and the hemisphere's last surviving Communist leaders — can be so obscured from public view reinforces the absolute control he and his tight circle exert on the flow of information from the island.
Fidel Castro may be 80, but his condition is officially a state secret.