HAVANA - Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro made a rare public appearance as he turned 90 on Saturday in an island transformed from the one he led for half a century.
Dressed in a white track jacket, Castro sat between his brother and successor, Raul, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, at a gala organized by a children's theater company, a live broadcast on local television showed.
The outing to Havana's Karl Marx Theater, the island nation's largest, marked his first public appearance since April 19, when he was seen at the close of the Cuban Communist Party Congress.
Both loved as a hero and hated as a dictator, Castro is one of the giant figures of modern history.
He defied 10 US presidents during his 48 years in power, but in the decade since he stepped aside Cuba has become a different world. His sworn foe, the United States, is no longer officially Cuba's enemy.
- Warrior -
Now white-bearded and frail, Castro was a strapping 32-year-old in green fatigues when he led a rebel force that drove out dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
His image as a revolutionary warrior storming down from the mountains, rifle in hand, stirred his admirers' imagination. His communist policies and iron-fisted treatment of rivals drew the hostility of the United States and other Western powers.
Although his voice used to boom out over Havana in speeches that lasted hours, the former president now spends his days out of sight at home.
And although he is rarely heard from, his face still smiles out from countless billboards across the Caribbean island.
In an article published by official media late Friday, Castro showed that he had lost little of his old fire, particularly when it comes to his longtime enemy the United States.
He criticized US President Barack Obama for failing to explicitly apologize during his historic visit to Japan in May for Washington's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. He condemned as "equally criminal" the bombing of Nagasaki three days later.
Referring to the scores of US assassination plots against him -- Cuban intelligence services numbered them at more than 600, some reportedly involving poisoned or explosive cigars -- he said, "I almost laughed at the Machiavellian plans of US presidents."
- 'Dictator' -
Although mostly out of sight, Castro has not been out of the minds of ordinary Cubans. State newspapers on the communist island have for days printed pictures and articles about him to mark his 90th year. Concerts have been played in his honor.
Fidel Castro retired from public life in 2006 due to ill health. He formally transferred the presidency to his brother Raul in 2008.
But Fidel continues to exert "an indirect influence through certain figures in the regime who are not comfortable with the reforms that Raul has made," said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a political scientist at Oxford University.
Raul, 85, has gradually opened up Cuba's economy and foreign ties, restoring diplomatic relations with Fidel's old adversary, the United States.
Such reforms were unthinkable when Cuba was a pro-Soviet state on the US's doorstep during the Cold War.
Fidel gave free healthcare, housing and schooling to citizens on a poor island.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his "dear friend" on his birthday.
"You enjoy deep respect in Russia as an outstanding statesman who devoted his entire life to serving the people of Cuba," Putin wrote in a telegram posted on the Kremlin's website.
Manuel Bravo, a 48-year-old Cuban glazier said that Fidel "is everything."
"He is sport, he is culture. He is rebellion. If Cubans are rebels, it is thanks to Fidel," he said.
But the former president's regime is also accused by human rights groups of brutally repressing dissent by torturing and jailing opponents.
"I will remember him as a dictator," said Martha Beatriz Roque, 71, an anti-Castro dissident who was one of 75 opponents jailed in the "black spring" of 2003.
"He is the man of 'E's: egomaniacal, egotistical, egocentric," she said.
"I don't know whether I will be able to wish him a happy birthday."
- 'Hero' -
Castro has reportedly suffered from intestinal illness in recent years. But official secrecy shrouds his condition.
At his last public appearance in April, Castro, who dressed in a blue tracksuit and spoke in a trembling voice, seemed to say goodbye.
"Soon I'll be like all the rest," he said. "Everyone's turn comes."
After Obama visited Cuba in March, Castro recalled the island's long enmity with the United States, including Washington's backing for the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
His bitterness over that botched CIA plot played a part in pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis the following year. The Soviet Union agreed to his request to send ballistic missiles to Cuba.
"For most Latin Americans, Fidel Castro represents heroic resistance to the hegemony and control of the United States," said Peter Hakim, an international affairs expert at Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank.
"But I do not think he will be seen as a hero for much longer... The modern world has left him and Cuba behind."
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