by Michael Langan Thu Nov 30, 10:33 AM ET
HAVANA (AFP) - Cuba's interim leader and defense chief Raul Castro was a no-show as some 200,000 people rallied in Santiago to mark the Revolutionary Armed Forces' 50th anniversary, amid uncertainty about his ailing brother
Fidel Castro's health.
"We recognize Raul as the firm guardian of the Cuban Revolution," Ramiro Valdes, a regime old-timer and current Communications Minister, told the crowd of workers and students in a sea of red, white and blue Cuban flags.
Raul Castro often presides over military events in Santiago, about 900 kilometers (600 miles) southeast of Havana, and many Cubans expected he would take part there Thursday.
But Raul, deputised to stand in as Cuba's leader for Fidel, who underwent intestinal surgery on July 27, did make his first public appearance in weeks Wednesday when he joined an open-air event in Havana celebrating revolutionary folk singer Silvio Rodriguez's 60th birthday.
There a group of schoolchildren asked him to forward greetings to Fidel.
"He's fine, today I'm going to see him," Raul, 75, told the children, according to state television.
How fine was less than clear. Cuba's strongman since 1959, Fidel remained absent from the belated public celebrations marking his 80th birthday, which was August 13. Birthday events were delayed in the hope his recovery would be well along by now.
But he has not been seen in public since then. He handed the government over temporarily to Raul, the defense minister, on July 31, and since then few details have emerged on Fidel's health, which is considered a state secret.
Though almost 2,000 foreign guests traveled to Cuba for the special birthday events, neither of the Castros showed up at the public events on Tuesday and Wednesday. Among the events bypassed was a colloquium entitled "Memory and the Future: Cuba and Fidel."
Fidel last appeared in a video on October 28 to refute rumors he was seriously ill or even dead, but warned that his recovery would be long and "not without risks."
A letter attributed to the ailing Castro was read late Tuesday to some 5,000 guests at Havana's Karl Marx Theatre at the gala opening of the birthday celebrations.
"I was not yet well enough, according to my physicians, to take part in such a challenging event, so I decided to speak with you in this way," said the letter, read by a state television news presenter.
Before Wednesday's appearance at the Rodriguez birthday celebration, Raul's last public appearance had been November 2, when he reviewed military equipment to be on display at Saturday's first military showcase parade in a decade.
Drilling for the parade was in high gear on Wednesday.
"I am hoping (Fidel Castro) will be present; I hope he can be with us even if it is for five minutes," said communications technician Jorge Santana, 42, marching as eight MiG fighter jets zoomed over above a mass of flags in Revolution Square.
Workers trudged past anti-aircraft missiles and armored cars, and the booming clop-clop-clop of troop transport choppers echoed over the crowd.
Schoolchildren on balconies and street corners eyed the war machinery, including some missiles painted to look like pencils. "Missiles, Comandante, to shoot down imperialism!" was one group's shrill scream.
The parade will commemorate both the 50th anniversary of the 1956 landing of the ship Granma carrying 81 fighters that helped spark the Cuban revolution -- including the Castro brothers and Argentine Ernesto 'Che' Guevara -- as well as the culmination of Fidel's birthday events.
Washington meanwhile showed no sign of accepting Raul Castro's leadership.
"The creation of some sort of Castro dynasty simply by transferring power to Raul Castro and having him continue to operate the same undemocratic, repressive policies as his brother is certainly not a solution that we think is viable," said US State Department spokesman Tom Casey.