Havana There was no sign of a convalescing Fidel Castro as hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched through Havana's Revolution Plaza to celebrate May Day, casting new doubts on his recovery and whether he will return to power.
Tuesday marked only the third time in nearly five decades that Castro has missed the sweeping International Workers' Day festivities - a major celebration here and around the world.
While recent images of Castro meeting with Chinese leaders indicated he had improved considerably since undergoing emergency surgery nine months ago, his absence at the parade through the Revolution Plaza raised questions about whether he is strong enough to run the country.
The 80-year-old leader has missed two other major events since announcing his illness on July 31 and temporarily ceding power to his 75-year-old brother Raul Castro, the defense minister. Raul presided at the Nonaligned Summit in September and a major military parade in December.
"It now seems more unlikely than before that he will fully resume the presidency," said Wayne Smith, the former head of the American mission in Havana. "And the more time that passes, the more unlikely it seems."
Smith said that with Castro failing to show Tuesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's assertions this week that Castro was back "in charge" appeared to be "a lot of hot air."
Others said he could still resume some responsibility.
"To me, the key question is to what degree is he coming back?" said Phil Peters, Cuba specialist for the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank. "Would his comeback be partial, ceremonial? Will he spend two hours in the office checking off on strategic decisions?"
Raul Castro, wearing his typical olive-green uniform and cap, stood stiffly and smiled under the shadow of a towering statue of Cuban independence leader Jose Marti. He occasionally waved as marchers clad in red T-shirts and dark slacks streamed past, clutching plastic Cuban flags, portraits of his more famous brother and banners denouncing U.S. "imperialism."
Although Cuban life is little changed under Raul's leadership, loyalists missed the energy Fidel brought to events such as May Day.
"Everyone wanted to see him, but it's good that he recovers completely. Now the revolution is continuing with Raul," said 68-year-old hotel worker Victor Reyes, who was among the marchers.
Special guests included a Cuba solidarity group from New York. The foreigners were impressed by the large turnout, which Havana's Radio Reloj estimated at 500,000. Smaller marches were held simultaneously in cities around the island.
"Even without (Fidel Castro), they came out en masse," said Joppe Van Meervelde, 29, a metal workers' unionist from Belgium.