CAMAGUEY, Cuba – Interim leader Raul Castro led tens of thousands of loyalists in celebrations marking the launch of Cuba's revolution Thursday, filling in for his ailing brother Fidel as his provisional government took on further airs of permanence.
Cuba's 76-year-old acting president and defense minister arrived for the Revolution Day festivities in Camaguey, a provincial capital of narrow colonial streets southeast of Havana. He was to address the crowd later during the ceremony.
Fidel, who turns 81 next month, has for decades given hours-long speeches to mark Cuba's top holiday. Last year, he addressed crowds in two separate cities on Revolution Day.
But he has not been seen in public since, apparently still too sick to appear in person after announcing last July 31 that emergency intestinal surgery was forcing him to step aside in favor of Raul.
He has begun penning essays dubbed "Reflections of the Commander in Chief" every few days, but appears to be in little hurry to return to power.
As the sun rose over Camaguey, about 100,000 people filled a plaza of red-tile paths and green grass flanked by towering palm trees. Red and black flags symbolizing the July 26 holiday hung from ever floor of an apartment building nearby.
Many people wore red T-shirts and waved miniature Cuban flags over their heads during the ceremony. "Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!" they screamed, in that order. Speaker after speaker spoke about Fidel, celebrating his life, repeating that he was attending the celebration in spirit and wishing him well.
But it was hard to find much disappointment that the elder Castro failed to show up.
"Raul converses well with the people and that gives us a special lift," said Gilberto Guerrero, a retired 74-year-old sugar cane worker. "There's so much happening in the world, but Raul speaks directly to the people of Cuba."
"I am certain Fidel is recovering but there's no problem because we have Raul," said Candida Alvarez, a 76-year-old retiree who hung a string of paper red, white and blue Cuban flags from the front door of her wooden home near Camaguey's historic center.
Alvarez, who works with neighborhood communist officials to mediate disputes between residents, said "Fidel will always be the boss, but now Raul is the boss too."
"He's been there for a year and has gained popularity, earned the warmth of the people," she said.
Raul Castro has said he's not fond of long speeches and is seen as a pragmatist. He has said in past official interviews and public appearances that he would be willing to discuss improving relations with Washington, whose 45-year-old embargo prohibits U.S. tourists form visiting the island and chokes off almost all trade between both countries.
"We know that what Raul says will be the guide for our revolutionary direction," said Jesus Garcia, president of Camaguey's provincial assembly. "What he says is up to him, but they will be important reflections and we will be ready and listening closely."
Fireworks marking Revolution Day shook much of Camaguey Wednesday evening and local Revolutionary Defense Committees organized late-night parties they boasted would last until Raul Castro takes the podium shortly after sunrise on Thursday.
Cuban flags and black-and-red flags symbolizing the July 26 Movement that launched the revolution were plastered on almost everything stationary, hanging in store windows and fluttering from the crumbling balconies of pastel-colored houses.
Cuba's third largest city and the capital of a cattle-producing province of the same name, Camaguey is hosting the yearly ceremony that marks the July 26, 1953, attack by both Castros and a ragtag rebel band on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.
The uprising quickly degenerated into a disaster and many rebels were shot dead during the chaotic fighting or captured and killed a short time later by government forces. But it became a rallying cry for a subsequent revolutionary movement that gained new strength and eventually toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.