Raul Castro silent at Cuban rally

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.

Speaking in Raul Castro's place on Monday was 79-year-old Cuban vice president Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, but he had no new announcements or messages for the Cuban people. Instead, he took a few standard-fare shots at the United States and repeated the admonishments Raul Castro has given in previous speeches, urging Cubans to produce more, waste less and be patient with the pace of economic reforms designed to preserve the country’s socialist system and increasing its woeful productivity levels.

“We have to overcome our deficiencies without turning to populist solutions, taking things one step at a time, going at our own pace, in order to avoid making mistakes or losing control,” Machado Ventura said.

He made no mention of government plans to lay off or reassign more than a million state-employed workers over the next few years, as Reuters reported last week, citing community party members. Those plans could become clearer when Cuba’s National Assembly begins its brief annual session later this week.

After Monday's event, Cubans in the crowd said they had hoped to hear from Raul, but they weren’t surprised that he chose not to speak, given his reputation as someone who ducks the spotlight. Rigoberto Rubio Hernandez, a university professor, said the president “isn’t much for speech-making,” making an often-made comparison to his famously loquacious older brother.

Matilde Patterson, an English teacher, said she thought many people wanted Raul to speak, but that the crowd — typically composed of the government’s most loyal supporters — wasn’t too disappointed.

“People still have great faith in our leadership,” she said.

The crowd applauded eagerly whenever Fidel Castro's name was mentioned, even though he was nowhere in sight. Despite the setting at the memorial to Che Guevara, he received only passing mention from Monday's speakers.