The question is swirling on the streets of Cuba: Where is Fidel?
The ailing 82-year-old hasn't appeared publicly in more than two years. He hasn't written one of his "Reflections"' in the official press in four weeks. On the 50th anniversary of his revolution, the former president issued only a 16-word New Year's Day statement congratulating the Cuban people.
Then, Sunday, one of Fidel Castro's closest friends, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, fanned the flames.
"That Fidel in uniform who walked the streets and towns at daybreak, embracing the people, will not return,"' Chavez said during his Sunday television and radio program. "That will remain a memory.''
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Chavez, who has emerged as a sort of spokesman for the aging revolutionary, did not discuss Castro's condition or say why he believed Castro would not return to the public stage.
In Biran, the town in eastern Holguin province where the Castro brothers were born, Castro's prolonged absence and silence has provoked some anxiety.
"People have been asking because he hasn't been shown in a long time,'' said Martin Castro, 79, half brother of the former president. "I called Havana the other day and they said he was regular. But they wouldn't give me any more information.''
Martin Castro is family, but he holds no position in the Communist Party hierarchy and has no special knowledge of his older brother's condition other than news his eldest brother, Ramon Castro, and other officials bring when they visit.
"One of Fidel's assistants was at the family house recently and he said Fidel was fine, but we don't know," he said.
"Where is El Caballo?'' asked Ernesto, a 41-year-old hotel security guard in the capital, using one of Castro's nicknames, the Horse. "Of course, every Cuban feels his absence. He isn't writing. There're no new photos. What's happening?"
Castro was last seen publicly on July 26, 2006, days before he underwent emergency intestinal surgery. Since then, Cuban authorities have periodically released photos and videos of Castro with Chavez and other foreign leaders.
His last "Reflections" column appeared on Dec. 15. The last published photo of Castro was released Nov. 18 after meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. In recent weeks, the Cuban press has been publishing his old speeches.
U.S.-based analysts said Chavez's remarks could mean that Castro's health has deteriorated after months in which he appeared to gain strength and weight.
"Does this mean Fidel is worse?" asked Vicki Huddleston, a Cuba expert and former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
"Is it a reiteration that Fidel is not coming back or is it just to underline that Raul really is in charge?"' she asked, referring to Raul Castro, who assumed the presidential duties in 2006 when his brother fell ill and was elected president in February 2008.
Huddleston said the both the Cuban people and the government have had ample time to prepare for Castro's demise.
The days after Castro stepped down in 2006 "was the most volatile time," she said. Now though, she continued, "I just don't have the feeling that the Cuban people are going to react in any way that is not controllable."
Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of the book "After Fidel," said a "standard indicator" of a downturn in Castro's health or even death would be a sudden increase in security on the streets. That has not been the case in Havana in recent days.
In contrast to the reaction in Cuba, Chavez's comments hardly caused a stir in Miami. Spanish talk radio hosts briefly mentioned the incident with other news of the day on anti-Castro stations like Radio Mambi and La Poderosa.
Castro's failing health isn't big news to Cuban exiles anymore, said radio station director Jorge Rodriguez. The community has been waiting for the day too long, he said.
"It's not significant anymore. It gets to the point where it becomes agonizing ... where all the excitement is lost," he said.
(Sun Sentinel correspondent Alexia Campbell in Miami contributed to this report.)