Sunday, August 06, 2006

Aging, ailing Castro will return, Cuba says

People stand next to a grafitti reading "Viva Fidel" on a street in Havana, August 2, 2006. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

By Marc Frank, Reuters
Published: Sunday, August 06, 2006

HAVANA -- Cuban officials said an aging and ailing Fidel Castro was recovering and could return to power in a few weeks, even though he remained out of sight five days after surgery that forced him to put his brother in charge of the country.

They tried to allay suspicions the 79-year-old Communist leader had lost his grip on the island nation he took over in a 1959 revolution, but admitted his health may require him to reduce his workload.

Government sources said Castro was well enough to be eating and sitting up, but he has not been seen in public since July 26.

Brother Raul, 75, has not surfaced since Fidel gave him provisional power on Monday, which has triggered speculation about who is in charge.

Vice President Carlos Lage said Castro would return to the presidency "in several weeks" and denied a Brazilian newspaper report his surgery was for stomach cancer, not gastrointestinal bleeding as announced.

"Fidel has had to confront an operation and is recovering favorably. He does not have cancer," Lage told reporters during an official visit to Bolivia.

"The operation was successful," he said after attending a speech by Bolivian President and Castro ally Evo Morales, who also said the Cuban leader was on the mend.

In a telephone interview on a radio station in Miami, home to 650,000 Cuban-Americans and the center of Castro opposition, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon said Fidel came through the "complicated" surgery so well that a few hours afterwards "he was talking, he was making jokes."

"That's why I feel confident he will recover very soon," he said.

But, Alarcon said Castro, who turns 80 on August 13, will have to slow down.

"We need him to be in good health and working," he said. "Part of that implies for him to sacrifice in terms of abandoning the day-to-day work to which he was so accustomed for many years."

In Havana, sources said government officials described Fidel Castro as doing well for a man his age.

"I was told Fidel is doing better, he has eaten something and sat up," one source told Reuters, asking not to be identified.

Mid-level Communist Party officials were informed that Castro was out of intensive care and beginning to recover, a party source said in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.

In Monday's announcement, Castro's internal bleeding was blamed on too much work and stress.

But respected Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported on Saturday that Cuban officials told Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva his friend Castro had a malignant stomach tumor and his condition was worse than had been disclosed.

A Brazilian government spokesman said the report was incorrect, but the reporter stood by the story.

"The information was obtained by Folha from two direct aides to President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva," reporter Kennedy Alencar said in a letter to his newspaper to be published on Sunday. An extract of the letter was given to Reuters on Saturday.

Dr. Howard Manten, a gastroenterologist and associate professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, said stomach cancer symptoms included internal bleeding, but there were many other possible causes, including ulcers or gastritis.

Typically, patients who have had intestinal surgery are in the hospital for a week and walking in two weeks, although Castro's age works against him, Manten said.

The prognosis for stomach cancer patients "is not great in terms of long-term survival," he added.

If Castro does pull through, it will not be the first time he has been written off or cheated death. He has been on the U.S. hit list since his Cold War revolution put him on the side of the Soviet Union and he has been rumored to be deathly ill on several occasions.

Many of the rumors emanated from opponents in the United States, where the White House this week urged Cubans to push for a new, democratic government.

U.S.-backed TV Marti, which provides Spanish-language news to counter news on Cuban government television, began broadcasting from a specially-equipped airplane provided by the Bush administration. The Cuban government jams TV Marti signals from ground-based transmitters.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana, Ricardo Amaral in Brasilia and by Todd Benson in Brazil)

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