Posted on Tue, Aug. 01, 2006
Castro faces surgery, cedes power to brother
By FRANCES ROBLES AND MARTIN MERZER
In a stunning development, Cuban leader Fidel Castro temporarily ceded his presidential power to brother Rául Castro late Monday due to ''an intestinal crisis'' that requires ''complicated surgery,'' according to a letter read on Cuban national television.
The letter, reportedly signed by the Cuban leader and read by Carlos Valenciaga, his secretary, said that Castro was assigning his top duties to his brother because Cuba is ``threatened by the United States government.''
Fidel Castro is 79 and has been in questionable health for years; Rául, the defense minister, is 75 and has been taking on a more public role in recent months.
In South Florida, where the Cuban exile community has awaited such news for decades, the initial reaction was muted but seemed certain to intensify as word spread.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz predicted that the next few days would be ``very tense.''
He called it ''unusual'' that Castro would be willing to cede power, even temporarily, and suggested that it was a sign that the Cuban leader's health was deteriorating sharply.
''Obviously, we're all going to be very, very happy the day that he dies,'' Diaz said. ``We'll be keeping a close eye.''
A party atmosphere descended over the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana, with a couple of dozen people gathered outside celebrating what they hope is the beginning of the downfall of Castro.
''We've waited 46 years in this country,'' said Angel Caso, 77. `` We don't know what this means, but it has to be good.''
''I think he's dead,'' Caso added, referring to Fidel Castro. ``He can't last much longer if he's not. Then we have to figure out what to do.''
In Washington, the State Departmenmt had no immediate comment.
Castro's letter attributed the ailment to stress from recent public appearances in Cuba and Argentina.
''The days and nights of continuous work without sleep caused that my health . . . suffered great stress,'' the letter said.
It is the first time in 47 years that Fidel Castro ceded the power that he snared as a rebel and clung to through decades of controversy and, many would say, brutal repression. Cuban law stipulates that his brother would take over as president upon his death.
''There is no doubt the people and the revolution will struggle until the last drop of blood,'' Valenciaga said.
Providing some evidence that Castro's medical situation was serious, Valenciaga said the Cuban leader delegated various functions to high-level Communist Party officials. He also postponed an upcoming international conference.
In addition, celebrations scheduled for Castro's 80th birthday on Aug. 13 will be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces, the announcement said.
''Until victory forever,'' Valenciaga said, using a revolutionary slogan.
In November, The Miami Herald reported that Central Intelligence Agency analysts were so certain Castro has Parkinson's disease that the agency last year began briefing U.S. policy makers.
Two longtime U.S. government officials familiar with the briefings said the CIA believed that Castro was diagnosed around 1998.
Parkinson's symptoms include tremors, stiffness, difficulty with balance and muffled speech, although it varies according to the patient.
In typical fashion, Castro responded with an hours-long speech broadcast on Cuban state television to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his entrance into the University of Havana. During the speech, he blasted President Bush and the CIA for the war in Iraq and the use of secret jails to house terror suspects.
''They've said Parkinson's -- what do you think of that?'' Castro told an audience of students and academics. ``I don't care if I get Parkinson's. The pope had Parkinson's, and he spent a bunch of years running all around the world.''
Showing no visible signs of health problems and dressed in his fatigues, Castro said he would not insist on remaining in power if he ever became too sick to lead the country.
''If I don't feel I'm in condition, I'll call the [Communist] Party and tell them I don't feel I'm in condition . . . that, please, someone take over the command,'' he said.
In October 2004, Castro, then 78, broke his left knee and right arm in a fall after giving a graduation speech in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara.
Former Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutiérrez wrote in his recent book that he had to prop up a dozing Castro several times while sitting next to him at an international event.
Castro fainted during a speech in a Havana suburb in 2001 and was seen almost collapsing during the inauguration of Argentine President Néstor Kirchner in 2003.
Herald staff writers Larry Lebowitz, Susannah A. Nesmith, Charles Rabin and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.