HAVANA (Reuters) - Fidel Castro's absence on Saturday from a major military parade in his honor was the surest sign yet that his 47-year-long reign as Cuba's undisputed leader has come to an end, experts said.
They said illness and old age had done what 10 U.S. presidents could not, clearing the way for his brother Raul Castro to take full command of the communist island.
Cuban officials have insisted he will recover from intestinal surgery in late July that forced him to temporarily turn over power to Raul, his longtime defense minister.
As late as Friday, Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage said in a closing ceremony for Castro's 80th birthday celebration that "Fidel is recovering, we will have him among us, he will continue leading."
But his inability this week to attend any of the birthday events, culminating with Saturday's parade in Havana's Revolution Square, says otherwise, analysts said.
"I think Dec. 2 clearly marks the end of the Fidel era. We have now unambiguously entered a new post-Fidel phase in the revolution," said Frank Mora, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College in Washington.
Castro has not been seen in public for more than four months, and looked feeble in the few photos and videos the government has released, leading many analysts to predict a reduced role for him in the future.
But they still watched closely this week to see if the bearded revolutionary who has survived war and assassination attempts and been a fixture on the world scene since 1959 might show up at his birthday celebration in better health.
Even after he sent a message to an opening birthday gala on Tuesday saying he was not up to attending, many experts and Cubans thought he would show up for the military parade, the kind of grand occasion at which he has reveled in the past.
TRANSITION 'A DONE DEAL'
Now it is obvious, said Latin American expert Julia Sweig of the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, "Fidel really is not well enough to make public appearances of the sort that the Dec. 2 events involve."
"The transition (of power) is a done deal," she said.
Cuba's future is now in the hands of Raul Castro, a behind-the-scenes figure who took center stage on Saturday instead of his brother and, analysts said, brings with him the prospect of change.
In a speech at the parade's start, he did not mention Fidel Castro's condition or absence, instead praising the military as the "soul of the revolution" and blasting the arch-enemy United States for numerous transgressions, including its long-standing trade embargo on Cuba.
But he also said Cuba was disposed to negotiate with the United States about their differences, which Dan Erikson of the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue said "marks a significant departure from Fidel's long-standing preference for conflict and confrontation."
Most analysts have said they expect Raul Castro, 75, to undertake gradual economic reforms to address discontent among ordinary Cubans who earn an average of just $15 a month.
He has made the military into a virtual corporation with holdings in agriculture, industry and tourism to raise revenue for its operations and is believed to be more practical about the economy than his brother.
"Fidel Castro really does not have an interest in things like economic growth or GDP or competition. All those things that are the motors and measures of a capitalist economy to him are completely anathema," Sweig said.
"So his absence is an opportunity for some economic space."
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