13 August 1998

                  Castro turns 72 after 39 years at Cuba's helm

                 HAVANA (Reuters) - President Fidel Castro, one of the world's
                  longest-serving leaders and defiant guardian of nearly four decades of
                  communism in Cuba, turned 72 on Thursday amid low-key official

                  Castro himself kept out of the spotlight on his birthday, presumably resting
                  from a recent grueling Caribbean tour and preparing for trips to the
                  Dominican Republic and South Africa.

                  But Cuba's state-run media, youth organisations and unions ensured the date
                  was celebrated thoroughly, albeit with the discretion Castro likes to maintain
                  around his personal life.

                  "How could we not join in the congratulations of millions of Cubans?" said
                  Communist Party daily Granma in an article setting the tone for the day's

                  Dogged by ill-health rumours in recent years, Castro has denied the reports
                  and kept up a hectic schedule so far in 1998, entertaining a stream of
                  high-profile foreign visitors in Havana from Pope John Paul II to supermodel
                  Naomi Campbell, and travelling to Europe and within the Caribbean.

                  Granma's lyrical report on his birthday included a photo of a beaming Castro
                  surrounded by the masses but did not mention his name. The paper invoked
                  Cuba's 19th century independence hero Jose Marti -- Castro's
                  self-proclaimed spiritual leader -- to hail Castro as "the most advanced of
                  the Apostle's pupils."

                  "How could we not dedicate a few lines on this date to he who has
                  dedicated more than 50 years of his life for the good of the fatherland, to
                  raise a people's honour and dignity to the highest peak, to teach us what is
                  real independence, real sovereignty, real democracy, real human rights, real
                  solidarity and internationalism?" asked Granma writer Susana Lee.

                  Born on Aug. 13, 1926, in a small hamlet of eastern Cuba to a
                  comfortably-off Galician-born farmer and a Cuban woman of humble stock,
                  Castro took power on Jan. 1, 1959, after a bloody guerrilla war against
                  former dictator Fulgencio Batista.

                  In the subsequent decades, he has outlasted eight U.S. presidents in power,
                  survived Washington's 36-year economic embargo on Cuba and the
                  collapse of his Soviet allies, borne long periods of international isolation, and
                  beaten off an invasion attempt and numerous assassination plots against him.

                  Away from the official activities, Cubans expressed a mixture of feelings for
                  Castro on his birthday. While most gave him credit as a strong and
                  charismatic leader, many said it was time he allowed greater political change
                  on the island, and others railed at Castro as the cause of the nation's
                  economic woes.

                  "Happy Birthday? Maybe for him. Not for me!" moaned a young law
                  student in a Havana shop who identified himself as Rigoberto. "If I could get
                  a job that paid more than 200 pesos ($20 per month), if I could buy a new
                  pair of shoes, if I was allowed to travel and see the world, then it might be a
                  happy birthday."

                  State television ushered in Castro's birthday at midnight with patriotic music
                  accompanying a collage of images of the Cuban leader with women, children
                  and workers.

                  Elsewhere, the Communist Youth movement said thousands of its members
                  were dedicating a day's voluntary work in the sugar-fields to their
                  "commander" Castro.

                  State-controlled unions sent messages of congratulations to Castro, one
                  wishing "good health to the maximum leader of the Revolution so he may
                  keep winning victory after victory in the socialist construction of the

                  And the national Pioneers children's organisation held low-profile parties
                  across the island. In Havana, for example, about 300 children gathered at
                  the Pioneers' Palace in Lenin Park -- under a banner saying "72 rays of sun"
                  -- to see a clown show and cut a huge cake with the number 72 on it.

                  Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.