HAVANA (Reuters) - Tanks rolled through the streets and jets roared overhead on Saturday in Havana's first military parade in a decade, but ailing leader Fidel Castro did not attend in what many saw as a sign his long rule of Cuba may be over.
Some 300,000 flag-waving Cubans marched past a reviewing stand in Havana's Revolution Square in salute to the comandante they had hoped would make his first public appearance since surgery four months ago.
Castro's absence at the event marking his 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the start of the revolution that put him in power accelerated speculation that he may be fading into history after 47 years in control.
"It means he will not return to power, that's for sure. Otherwise he would have made it," said a European diplomat who attended the parade but asked not to be identified.
The biggest military parade in Cuba since 1986 capped five days of celebrations that felt more like a farewell than a birthday party and included conferences on Castro's place in history. The events were attended by left-wing politicians and intellectuals from dozens of countries.
Castro had emergency intestinal surgery in late July that forced him to temporarily turn over power to his brother Raul Castro. He has appeared feeble in the few photos and videos released by the government.
Raul Castro, Cuba's acting president and defense minister, led the parade, but said nothing about his brother's condition or absence in a speech.
He quoted from a past Fidel speech, praised the Cuban people for their "maturity" the past four months and at the end shouted "Viva Fidel."
Raul Castro also blasted the United States for imperialist actions such as its long-standing trade embargo against Cuba, but left the door open for improving relations.
"We take this opportunity to once again state that we are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the longstanding dispute between the United States and Cuba," he said.
Talks could only be held if the United States agrees to respect Cuban independence and not interfere in the island's internal affairs, he said.
"In the meantime, after almost half a century, we are willing to wait patiently until the moment when common sense prevails in the Washington power circles."
Cuban officials have denied reports that Fidel Castro has cancer and continue to insist he is recovering and will return to power, but analysts and diplomats believe he will be a figurehead at best if he survives his still-undisclosed illness.
Castro is the last key player from the Cold War to remain in power, surviving the attempts of 10 U.S. presidents to get rid of him by force, assassination or economic pressure.
His defiance of the hostile superpower and his international promotion of communism has made him a world figure far out of proportion to the size of his small nation of 11 million people.
Although many Cubans hope for economic change to improve their average salary of $15 a month, they revere or respect Fidel Castro in many ways.
"He is an ill old man. I respect the sentiments of his family, but it is clear that an era is coming to an end," said leading dissident and pro-democracy activist Oswaldo Paya.
He said it was time Cuba's one-party state allowed Cubans to have a say through the ballot box.
Castro's health overshadowed the military display that experts say was meant as a show of muscle to anyone who thinks communist Cuba is vulnerable because of uncertainty over its the future.
The tanks and rocket launchers that rolled through the square and MiG jet fighters and helicopter gunships that flew past in the clear Havana sky were aging equipment provided by the Soviet Union before it collapsed in 1991.
The vehicles sent up clouds of smoke as they passed by and one stalled in front of the reviewing stand where Raul Castro and a host of dignitaries watched.
The parade was as much an anti-U.S. rally as it was a tribute to Fidel Castro.
"Cuba si, Yankee no," the marchers shouted.
"Those weapons will never bow before the Empire," read a banner hanging in the square.
(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel and Nelson Acosta)