Cuban leader Fidel Castro turns 81

Fidel Castro spent his birthday Monday very much as he did last year's: fighting illness amid rumors that he is at death's door.

According to official accounts, he just turned 81. But a leading Cuba expert says anecdotal evidence shows Castro actually was born in 1927 and has lived a lie most of his life. Castro, according to former CIA analyst Brian Latell, just now became an octogenarian.

But whatever Castro's age, rumors began circulating last week that his health had taken a turn for the worse. And unlike Aug. 13, 2006 , which was marked by the first photos of an ailing Castro, this year's birthday took place without a word or snapshot from the sickly leader. Celebratory fireworks lit the Havana sky early Monday, but no photos graced its newspapers.

Even the ubiquitous "Reflections by the Commander in Chief" -- the opinion columns Castro started in March -- have ground to a halt. After churning out 37 articles -- sometimes several a week -- Castro has not penned a new one since Aug. 7, Centre Daily Times reports.

According to CCTV, Cuba has celebrated Fidel Castro's 81st birthday with fireworks and cake for youngsters. But the Cuban leader did not show up for the modest festivities.

Aside from midnight pyrotechnics over Havana Bay and birthday parties in his honor for boys and girls, there were no other organized celebrations.

Hundreds of children gathered in Havana 's Lenin Park to enjoy a huge sheet cake with light blue frosting, pink roses and messages to Castro.

Castro has not appeared in public since announcing his illness in July, 2006. He has had intestinal surgery and has provisionally ceded power to his younger brother Raul. Despite being out of public sight, the leader still remains in Cubans' thoughts.

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