HAVANA, Cuba, Nov. 21, 2006 -- Somewhere in Cuba -- no one is quite sure where -- Cuban president Fidel Castro is working very hard to recover from whatever ails him, and again no one is quite sure what that might be.
Castro has been recovering from intestinal surgery for an undisclosed illness since the summer.
U.S. government officials said earlier this month that there was still some mystery about Castro's diagnosis, his treatment, and how he was responding, and that they believed he had terminal cancer of the stomach, colon or pancreas.
Castro has appeared frail in recent photos, but his legendary willpower, no doubt, is now focused on next week, when famous friends and admirers will gather to celebrate his 80th birthday and watch a military parade on Dec. 2 to mark 50 years since his revolution began.
The mystery surrounding Castro's condition, and his fame, ensures that at no other time since the October missile crisis, when the world faced nuclear destruction, will so much attention be focused on the Caribbean island and its iconic, if controversial, leader.
Will Castro, last seen in a video on Oct. 28 looking frail and having difficulty walking, appear at Havana's Revolution Square in his olive-green uniform to salute the troops, or attend one of a number of cultural events planned for his birthday?
Either turn of events would mark his first public appearance in four months and be seen on television screens around the world.
A Weakened Leader
Last month's video convinced many foreigners and Cubans alike that whatever ailed Castro was grave indeed and that he might not be able to attend the hours-long parade in its entirety, if at all.
"Maybe he can show up for a few minutes, but certainly not for hours in the sun," a Western diplomat said.
"From what I saw, I doubt he will be in condition to get too involved in all the activity," university student Isabel said. "Better that he continue his treatment."
Castro's July 31 announcement temporarily handing power to Defense Minister Raul Castro, his 75-year-old brother and second in the Cuban hierarchy, hinted he would be there.
Castro stated he needed "various weeks of rest" to recover from "an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding, which obliged me to undergo a complicated surgical operation."
Then, he said, "I would ask everyone to postpone the anniversary of my 80th birthday, which thousands of personalities so generously agreed to celebrate on Aug. 13, to Dec. 2 of this year."
Shroud of Mystery
However, they will not say whether he will appear on Dec. 2, let alone when or whether he will return to power.
"It's a subject on which I don't want to speculate," Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque recently told The Associated Press. Castro's return, he said, "will come when it's the right moment."
Castro's birthday party will consist of a series of cultural events and tributes to Castro sponsored by the Ecuador-based Guayasamin Foundation, which represents the famous and now diseased painter and Castro friend.
It will take place over a series of days starting Nov. 28 and ending Dec. 1, organizers recently announced.
"In the opportune moment, in the midst of Fidel's disciplined process of recovery, he will decide the circumstances in which it will be possible for him to accompany those of us who will be here," said Alfredo Vera, coordinator of the festivities, which include an art show, concert and symposium on Castro's life and legacy.
Little Brother Leaving His Mark
Meanwhile, four months into Castro's convalescence, the government, which dominates the economy and media, remains under the management of Raul Castro.
His penchant for sharing the limelight, working behind the scenes, and discipline are already leaving a mark.
Raul Castro is clearly centering the government, appearing at key national events.
But he is more of a team player than his brother, experts say, and now the political space is being shared by other officials such as Roque, Vice President Carlos Lage, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon.
Fidel Castro, with much fanfare, mobilized tens of thousands of young people in an all-out attack on the bureaucracy and corruption before he took ill.
That's been replaced by an insistence that existing structures, from government ministries to the Communist Party and official trade unions, clean up their own acts.
The kids have all but disappeared.
"You can sense that little by little Raul is working to establish order and discipline, but it will take time," service worker Alejandro Rosell said.
"The government has been working for a long time on this, but in recent months the pace has quickened."
A year ago, Fidel Castro sent 15,000 youth to take over the country's fuel distribution system and discovered half was being stolen. The entire work force was replaced.
A recent series of articles in the official media on similar pilfering in state food and other services concluded by announcing a study on what about socialist property causes the problem in the first place.