By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is awash with official tributes to former leader Fidel Castro ahead of his 90th birthday on Saturday, even as its people and leadership have begun to look beyond the legacy of the Communist-ruled state's founding figure.
Dotted around Havana, flags read "Gracias, Fidel" and billboards cite his best-known phrases, while state media churns out stories about the man who toppled a U.S.-backed dictator in 1959 and went on to rule Cuba for nearly half a century.
Thousands are expected to attend street concerts over the weekend in honor of Castro, who is revered by many for freeing Cuba from U.S. domination and bringing universal healthcare and education, but loathed by others for his long grip on the island.
"Fidel is an example for the whole world, he is a large personality because of all he did for our country," said Yoelmis Mengana, a shop owner, after touring an exhibition of photos of Fidel in Havana's grandiose Hotel Nacional.
The birthday celebrations hark back to an era when "El Comandante" nationalized the economy and ruled almost single-handedly, but Cuba has changed since Fidel's brother, President Raul Castro, officially took the reins of power in 2008.
The younger Castro, 85, has brought detente with "eternal enemy" the United States and pushed through market-oriented reforms to the Soviet-style command economy, while also offering more internet access and fewer restrictions on travel.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans now work for themselves or for small private businesses and a jump in tourism, likely to accelerate with the start of regular commercial flights to and from the United States later this month, has fueled a new sense of openness and economic opportunity on the island.
In public comments, Fidel has lent only lukewarm support to his brother's initiatives, but his influence has waned externally as well as at home.
On his 80th birthday, Fidel Castro was frail from an intestinal ailment that nearly killed him, but his ideas were enjoying a revival among a bloc of leftist presidents resisting the traditional domination of the United States in Latin America.
A decade later, that bloc is crumbling. In Brazil and Argentina, a shift to the political right has toppled Fidel's friends.
Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro will visit Cuba for Fidel's birthday, local media reported. But Venezuela, an important ally of Cuba under late left-wing populist Hugo Chavez, is in crisis and has slashed the exports of subsidized oil that Havana long depended on.
It is not clear whether Fidel, who has not been seen out and about for months, will make a public appearance.
While Castro no longer has a government or Communist Party office, he still holds sway with the honorific title Historic Leader. In March he wrote a column criticizing U.S. President Barack Obama's recent historic visit and then shocked some Cubans at the Communist Party Congress in April by musing about death.
He remains hugely popular even with his aura of invincibility gone. And he plays a role as a brake on the pace of change, with Communist Party conservatives using his moral authority and popularity to bolster attempts to thwart reform, analysts say.
"Regime hard-liners, quite possibly with his approval, are playing upon the general populations' reservoir of sympathy for Fidel to legitimize their resistance to change," said Richard Feinberg, author of a new book, "Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy".
Adulation of Fidel in the official media is grating to many, especially at a time when an economic slowdown is a reminder of the flaws in his utopian dreams and many Cubans are still desperately seeking to emigrate to the United States.
"This time there have been too many tributes," said Yosmara Castaneda, adding that her "very revolutionary" Havana-based family celebrated his birthday every year.
"It's almost like they are giving him a big farewell ... They have been paying tributes since June," said the 27-year- old, who once sang for Fidel as a child in a choir.
While many of the official birthday activities have targeted such young Cubans, to remind them of Fidel's role in history, some say they will skip the party.
"His time is past and it's now the moment to give way to the young," said Yaniel Pupo, a 23-year-old accountant.
"If you've created a regime ... which doesn't work, then it's time to change it."
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)