Carnival celebrations on Havana’s Malecón seafront esplanade Friday melded with a concert held in honor of the birthday of former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who turned 90 on Saturday.
Mr. Castro, who has not appeared in public since a Communist Party Congress in April, was not expected to turn up to any of the celebrations, according to Reuters. But the retired Cuban leader did make his presence felt on the occasion, publishing a column in state newspaper Granma that reflected glancingly upon his early childhood before turning to President Barack Obama’s May visit to Japan.
“In my estimation, the US president’s speech did not rise to the occasion when he visited Japan [in May], and he lacked the words to apologize for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima, though he knew well the effects of the bomb,” wrote Castro. “The attack on Nagasaki, chosen randomly by the owners of life, was equally criminal. It is for this reason that we must return again and again to the necessity of preserving peace, so that no single power may claim the right to kill millions of human beings.”
His comments take place against a backdrop of slow but definite change in Cuba, where his octogenarian brother Raúl has presided over an incremental liberalization of the island’s economy, as well as a July 2015 normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States. Since then, Fidel has cast himself in the role of skeptic over the United States’ intentions and the nature of its influence in Cuba, even as he backs his brother’s decisions.
"Soon I'll be 90, something that never would have occurred to me," he said at the April Communist Party Congress, where he urged Cuba not to abandon the path of socialism. "Soon I'll be like all the others. Our time comes for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will endure."
In a March Granma column following Obama’s trip to the island, Fidel issued a miffed rebuke to the US president’s call to look to the future, saying that “all of us were at risk for a heart attack” upon hearing the speech’s “sweetened” words.
“We do not need the empire to give us anything,” he wrote then.
Still, the next chapter in US-Cuban relations is set to open on Aug. 31, when direct scheduled commercial flights resume for the first time in 50 years. Eight airlines will offer flights from 10 US cities: Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; Los Angeles; Newark, N.J.; New York; and four in Florida — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa. Of the 20 daily nonstop flights allowed to Havana, 14 are from Florida, home to the largest population of Cuban-Americans, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, official celebrations for Fidel’s 90th will be relatively low-key, but will include the rolling of the world’s longest cigar – a 90-meter-long stogie that involved over 100 people and ten days of work, according to La Jornada in Mexico – as well as an island-wide performance by children’s choruses and photo exhibitions paying tribute to the revolutionary leader.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, who arrived in Havana on Friday night, is scheduled to participate in celebrations, according to Prensa Latina. Relations between the two countries remain close, despite substantial decreases in shipments of the subsidized oil to Cuba that characterized the era of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.