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Raul Castro silent at Cuban rally

Cuba's annual Revolution celebration was notable for its lack of speech-making.

Cuba, Revolution Day
A man holds a poster with a portrait of Cuban President Raul Castro in the legendary city of Santa Clara, July 26, 2010. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTA CLARA, Cuba — In Cuba’s inscrutable political culture, silence is often just as significant as speech-making. And Raul Castro’s decision to stay quiet during a major annual government rally Monday is likely to add to growing intrigue about recent political developments on the island.

The yearly event, which commemorates Fidel Castro’s failed first attempt to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1953, is typically the occasion for a state-of-the-union style speech about the island’s economy and other domestic matters.

But Monday's rally offered little to Cubans looking for clues to where the country is headed. It was the first July 26 event in memory that neither Fidel nor Raul addressed the nation.

It wasn’t for lack of subject matter. Cuba has been buzzing since Fidel Castro resurfaced in public this month for the first time in years, leading to new speculation about his role in the island’s affairs. The government has also begun releasing scores of jailed dissidents as part of a new dialogue with Catholic Church leaders. And calls for more market-oriented economic reforms have been growing as Cuba's financial outlook remains bleak.

By sunrise tens of thousands of flag-waving Cubans had crowded into a plaza here, about 170 miles east of Havana, where a towering bronze statue of Ernesto “Che” Guevara rises above a somber mausoleum for the fallen revolutionary icon and his comrades. Raul Castro and the country’s other top officials, many of them in their 70s or older, sat in the front row, squinting in the morning sun.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had previously announced his planned to speak at the rally, leaving Cubans to wonder if Fidel Castro would also attend — if not to give a speech, at least to show support for his brother’s leadership.

Instead, both men were conspicuous no-shows, and Cubans got puzzling silence from their president.

Chavez canceled the day before, saying diplomatic tensions with neighboring Colombia would keep him at home. Those tensions were a central theme of remarks delivery by the speakers who functioned essentially as stand-ins for Chavez and Raul Castro. Venezuelan Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez gave a blistering anti-American speech, denouncing claims by Bogota that his country was providing a safe haven for Colombian rebels. He called it a “crude excuse” meant to justify an attack on Cuba and Venezuela.

“We don’t want war ... but American blood will be spilled,” if there’s an attack, he said, accusing the United States of coveting Venezuelan oil and other imperial ambitions.

Still, it was Raul Castro's silence that seemed to overshadow the event. Many had expected him to use the occasion to remind Cubans that despite his elder brother's recent appearances, he was still directing the country and devoted to its most pressing economic problems. Instead, by breaking with tradition and staying quiet, he passed up a chance to send a clear message about who's really running Cuba.

Fidel Castro was an almost-daily presence on Cuban television during his 47-year rule. But Raul is rarely visible, and since he only gives a handful of speeches a year, his words are carefully deciphered for signs about where Cuba is headed.