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Fidel Castro back in the spotlight as he turns 84

By David Ariosto, CNN
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Fidel Castro trying a comeback?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The aging Communist leader turns 84 on Friday
  • His birthday comes after a string of recent public appearances
  • Fidel Castro's recent speech scorns U.S. foreign policy and warns of nuclear war

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- More than five decades ago, a 32-year-old Cuban guerrilla fighter named Fidel Castro led a triumphant column of bearded revolutionaries into the Cuban capital.

Eleven U.S. presidents later, Castro is still making headlines.

Unlike in 1959, this time, it's for his birthday.

The aging Communist leader turns 84 on Friday after a string of recent public appearances that have left analysts and foreign diplomats scrambling to decipher.

"He's obviously a lot healthier than we thought he was," said Phil Peters, Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington.

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"He's also confining himself to foreign policy while not saying a word about domestic issues, much less against the prisoner releases or economic policies of his brother [and current president Raul Castro]."

In a deal brokered last month between Havana, the island's Catholic Church and Spain, Cuba agreed to release 52 dissidents imprisoned under then-president Fidel Castro in the largest prisoner release in more than a decade.

The announcement came just days before a rare interview on state television with the former Cuban leader, who scorned U.S. foreign policy and warned of nuclear war, but made no mention of prisoner releases or his brother's economic reforms.

On Saturday, clad in his signature olive-green fatigues, the elder Castro addressed a special session of parliament in his first institutional appearance since intestinal surgery sidelined him in 2006.

The aging revolutionary was escorted to the podium amid a thunderous applause and gave a 12-minute speech that centered on nuclear war before taking questions from an adoring parliamentary crowd.

"The babies, the adolescents and the young people of the world can be saved from this [potential] nuclear holocaust," he warned, gripping the wooden podium and wagging his finger in a fashion reminiscent of years past.

Castro left his usual seat next to his younger brother, Raul Castro, vacant. Instead, he sat beside National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, prompting speculation over the island's power balance and the relationship between the two brothers.

"Castro's appearances, I do think, are related to the release of the political prisoners," said Julia Sweig, senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"[His appearances are] intended, I believe, to signal to the party faithful ... that Raul's moves diplomatically and domestically have Fidel's blessing."

While the country's fledgling economy, mounting debt and routine shortages have prompted limited though potentially controversial free-market reforms under Raul Castro, domestic issues have been noticeably absent from the elder Castro's recent commentary.

The aging former leader has remained focused on foreign policy, brandishing his image as a global commentator.