Fidel Castro's absence during Cuba's annual May Day parade in Revolution Plaza was a blow to many Cubans – and Castro fans the world over – who expected their leader to make his first public appearance since falling ill and ceding temporary power to his brother Raúl Castro last July.
For nearly nine months, Mr. Castro has only been seen in photos and footage. But despite his absence Tuesday, speculation that once centered on how much longer he had to live has given way to a sense that he will get back to work. Now, Cuban residents and observers are wondering in what capacity he might return.
"Fidel is the revolution and he represents the dreams of many people," says Ernesto, a law student at the University of Havana who declined to give his last name. "I don't think that Fidel is completely out of the decisionmaking process. But I also don't think that he will ever again be the only one to be making decisions."
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched through Revolution Plaza in the annual International Workers' Day march Tuesday, which Castro has attended for decades. But at press time, he was nowhere to be seen.
Speculation that he might appear was fueled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who said Sunday that Castro was again "in charge." Evo Morales, Bolivia's leftist leader and a Castro ally, also said publicly that the 80-year-old leader could make a May Day appearance.
Castro may return – but in what role?
Still, analysts say, there is a sense that Castro is recuperating and will resume some leadership responsibilities. Because of a dearth of public information on Castro – even his illness is a state secret – if he does come back to work, it is hard to know what sort of post he will hold.
Many believe his focus could be foreign affairs, especially given that his first public opinions, editorials penned in the Communist-run paper Granma, railed against US enthusiasm to turn corn into ethanol.
He later condemned a US court decision that allowed Luis Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro exile, to post bail. The day before May Day, Castro penned another column criticizing the release of Mr. Posada, whom the Cuban government has accused of bombing a Cuban jetliner in 1976.
In April, in what was believed to be his first official state meeting, Castro met with Wu Guanzheng, a member of the Standing Committee of China's Communist Party Politburo.
While much in Cuba has remained the same in the nine months that Raúl Castro, the leader's brother, has headed the country, small signs have signaled a new willingness to restructure the way the state is run, says Philip Peters, vice president and Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute near Washington. That includes Raúl Castro's criticism of chronic problems such as transportation, agricultural production, and housing. "Raúl Castro has been expressing tremendous impatience," says Mr. Peters.
The criticism, which normally take the form of exposés in Granma or speeches in front of the National Assembly, are by no means major departures from the status quo. But it is the kind of self-criticism to which Cubans are not accustomed.
"If a government spends enough time talking about severe problems in their economy, at some point they have to come up with a solution," says Peters. "In that sense, he is creating expectation for change."
Juan Carlos, who was watching the May Day parade pass, expressed that sentiment. "This country is changing slowly, but it's changing," he says. He worries about political instability ahead. "I'm afraid that a dramatic change could occur if those people that oppose the party decide to stand up."
Castro unlikely ever to assume full control
But few say that any major changes will take place in Cuba while Castro is alive. His public image as the face of the Cuban Revolution remains infallible.
Castro will also continue to vex the US as long as he maintains close ties with Mr. Chávez, who announced on May Day that Venezuela will take more control of projects in the Orinoco Belt, where some of the world's biggest oil companies operate.
"The days of Fidel standing in front of a crowd for four hours, those days are over," says Eric Driggs, a research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. Even if he had shown up for the parade Tuesday, or resurfaces at a later date, "it does not change the fact that his ability to lead the country is compromised."
"As long as [Castro] is on the margins, Raúl is not going to make any significant reform that flies in the face of Fidel's vision of the revolution," he adds.
Among Cubans, his absence, while disheartening, was one more small step toward a new way of life in this island nation.
"Fidel is unlike any other leader. He didn't discriminate. He shook hands with everybody, black, white, young, old," says Urbano Alejandro, who has worked in a metal-can factory for 30 years. "Fidel is getting old. I don't think that he'll come back. I trust Raúl, though."
• A reporter in Havana contributed to this report.