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Castro Pronounces Condition Stable

Amid rumors of his demise, the Cuban leader declares himself in `perfectly fine' spirits despite hints of his precarious health.

August 02, 2006|Carol J. Williams, Greg Miller and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — President Fidel Castro proclaimed himself in stable condition and good spirits in a statement read on state television Tuesday. But the message also made clear that his health remained precarious after an operation to stem intestinal bleeding.

Neither Castro, soon to turn 80, nor his 75-year-old brother and designated successor, Raul, were seen in public or on television during a day in which speculation was rampant that the bearded revolutionary might be on death's doorstep.

No information has been released on where Castro has been treated or hospitalized or on the details of his operation and prognosis.

But the relatively upbeat statement read during the nightly political affairs program "Round Table" appeared meant to dispel the more dire rumors, circulating mostly among fiercely anti-Castro exiles in Miami, that he had died and the transfer of governing authority to Raul was hastily arranged to buy time to prepare the Cuban public for their first leadership change in nearly half a century.

"I cannot make up positive news," Castro's statement warned, hinting at the gravity of his condition before deeming his health stable. "As for my spirits, I feel perfectly fine."

As he had in a message Monday, Castro alluded to the need for his fellow citizens to be vigilant amid what he deems threats of aggression from the United States and appeared to warn Washington and Cuban dissidents against any attempt to take advantage of the temporary power shift.

"The country is prepared for its defense," he said, urging Cubans to "struggle and work."

In a report read Tuesday on Radio Reloj, Castro was said to have promised "to rule from my bed," a possible indication he might resume the presidential, military, political and governing powers he handed over to his brother and other Communist Party stalwarts Monday. In the statement read on state TV by his personal secretary Tuesday, Castro even deeded responsibility for several key committees he heads to party colleagues to press on with the campaigns for education, healthcare and energy conservation.

The head of Cuba's parliament, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, had earlier disputed contentions in exile circles that Castro had died or was about to.

"The imperialists ignore the strength of Fidel Castro," Alarcon said in an interview with the news agency Prensa Latina. Castro will fight fiercely to the end, he said, "but this end is very far away."

Alarcon disparaged as "nauseating" the images broadcast by international TV networks of Cuban exiles dancing in the streets of Miami and expressing hopes that Castro was dead.

In central Havana on Tuesday evening, a sense of calm prevailed on the streets and in the parks, restaurants and cafes.

Lovers huddled together along the Malecon, as they would on any other night. European tourists took part in horse-carriage rides and sightseeing. The police presence throughout the city was at its normal levels, and no army troops were in view.

Few people seemed to be paying much attention to the government broadcasts on television and radio concerning Castro's condition. Instead, the city's usual nocturnal soundscape of hip-hop, soul and jazz prevailed.

Cuba's official Granma newspaper reported on its website that throughout the country, normality reigned, with Cubans going to work and otherwise going about their business.

The political drama surrounding Castro's latest bout of ill health was seen in Washington as a test run for a transition anticipated for decades, a chance for the communist government to demonstrate that plans for a peaceful transfer of power are workable and that the revolution will outlive its leader.

"This is a dry run for their succession plan," a U.S. intelligence official said.

The official added that developments in Havana were being monitored not only by analysts at the CIA, but also by senior figures in the Cuban government searching for signs of emerging opposition or threats to the regime during Castro's first absence from the helm.

At the White House, Press Secretary Tony Snow said the news had not yet resulted in substantive change in U.S. relations with Cuba.

"For the dictator, Fidel Castro, to hand off power to his brother, who's been the prison keeper, is not a change in that status," Snow said at a briefing. "So Raul Castro's attempt to impose himself on the Cuban people is much the same as what his brother did. So no, there are no plans to reach out.

"The one thing we want to do is to continue to assure the people of Cuba that we stand ready to help," Snow added.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to respond to questions on the nature of Castro's illness and labeled as "hypothetical" the premise of a reporter's question: whether the Bush administration would soften the U.S. embargo under a Cuba led by Raul Castro.

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