HAVANA — It would be easy for Raul Castro to make headlines in a major Revolution Day speech today. All he has to do is bring up the 52 political prisoners he has agreed to release, or discuss plans to open the island's communist economy.
Of course, nothing Cuba's 79-year-old president says will mean as much as whether elder brother Fidel is standing by his side. A recent spate of appearances by the revolutionary leader after four years of near-total seclusion has everybody talking. Could this be Fidel's coming out party?
"If Fidel is there, it will cause a huge stir. It will be very important," said Wayne Smith, a former top American diplomat in Havana and senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
He said the elder Castro brother's presence would make clear to many in Washington that the 83-year old revolutionary still has a strong hand in affairs of state. That, Smith says, would not be viewed positively by those waiting for Cuba to allow more economic, political and social changes.
"The thought has been that they are moving toward reforms under Raul, but that they might be moving more energetically if not for the fact that Fidel Castro is still sitting on the porch and Raul is afraid he might not be enthusiastic," Smith said. "If Fidel does come back, that could suggest they aren't going to move as fast as they should with these changes."
Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for nearly half a century until he was forced to step down in 2006 and undergo emergency intestinal surgery, turning power over — first temporarily, then permanently — to his brother.
Since then, Castro has lived in near total seclusion. Until this month, that is.
The former president has seemingly been everywhere, most recently making an emotional visit Saturday to a town outside Havana to honor fallen revolutionary fighters.
State media have even taken to calling him "commander in chief" again, a title he has largely shunned since stepping down.
Fidel Castro has used the publicity spree to warn that the world stands on the precipice of a nuclear war — pitting the United States and Israel on one side, and Iran on the other.
So far he has stayed clear of commenting on current events in Cuba, perhaps in an effort to avoid the appearance of interfering with his brother's work running the country. But merely attending Revolution Day celebrations would be an overtly political act.
While Raul Castro has remained loyal to his brother's communist ideals, he has overseen the handover of tens of thousands of acres of government land to individual farmers; has allowed some small-level entrepreneurship in a country where the state controls well over 90 percent of the economy; and has spearheaded an anti-corruption drive in which several senior officials were fired.
He has also tried to scale back unsustainable subsidies in a system where most people earn low government wages but receive free health care and education, near-free housing and transportation and deeply discounted basic food.
The reforms — while halting — have allowed Raul to emerge from the shadow of his more famous brother, though opinion is divided on how much influence Fidel wields behind the scenes.