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Cuba readies birthday fete for Castro, but will he be there?

Troops are massing for a huge parade and guests are arriving from around the world to celebrate at Fidel Castro's delayed 80th birthday party. The only question is whether the ailing guest of honor himself will appear after four months out of the public eye.

Whether Castro shows up for some of the five days of festivities starting today will give the Cuban people and the world clues about the leader's health and ability to resume the power he held for 47 years - or at least feed further speculation about it.

Rows of troops in olive green fatigues marched Monday across Havana's Plaza of the Revolution to prepare for a big military parade on Saturday honoring Castro and marking the 50th anniversary of the island's Revolutionary Armed Forces.

The festivities were originally scheduled around Castro's actual birthday on Aug. 13. After falling ill, Castro asked to postpone them to coincide with the military anniversary.

Details of Castro's ailment have been treated as a state secret, and his absence from the public scene has fueled persistent rumors about his health - especially among his enemies in the Cuban exile community in South Florida.

Despite periodic statements by Cuban officials insisting he is recovering nicely, U.S. officials say they are convinced Castro suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and won't live through 2007.

Castro has been seen by the public only in photos and videos since announcing on July 31 he was temporarily ceding power to his 75-year-old brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, after his emergency operation for sustained intestinal bleeding.

Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Mexican actress Maria Rojo, former Ecuadorean President Rodrigo Borja and Argentine ex-soccer star Diego Maradona are among more than 1,300 people organizers say will attend.

Castro's good friend and political ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, won't be able to come; he is up for re-election on Dec. 3.

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