The New York Times
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
Published: August 1, 2006
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 1 — Cuba’s Communist government released a statement this evening suggesting that Fidel Castro, its long-time ruler, had survived intestinal surgery, but it gave few details about his condition.
The statement came amid considerable uncertainty in Cuba since Mr. Castro unexpectedly turned over the reins of power to his brother on Monday night because of his health.
After a long day of speculation and rumor, an announcer on state-run television and radio this evening read the statement, which he said had been written by Mr. Castro, who will be 80 on Aug. 13. In the statement, Mr. Castro said his condition was stable but the full extent of his illness would not be known for several days.
“The most I can say is that the situation will remain stable for many days before a verdict can be given,” he said. “In spirits, I find myself perfectly fine. The important thing is that the country is running perfectly well. The country is prepared for its defense by the Armed Revolutionary Forces and the people. Our compatriots will know everything at the appropriate time.”
State-run television showed no pictures of Mr. Castro, nor did it broadcast his voice. It remained unknown where the surgery took place or where he was recuperating. The statement attributed to Mr. Castro, read by Randy Alonso, an announcer on a daily news program, said the threat posed by the United States made the daylong silence about his condition necessary.
“Because of the plans of the empire, my state of health has become a state secret that cannot be continually divulged, and compatriots should understand this,” Mr. Castro said in the statement.
Mr. Castro temporarily handed over power to his brother, Raul, to undergo surgery to repair an ailment that had caused intestinal bleeding, according to a statement apparently written by the ruler and read on Cuban television on Monday night. Mr. Castro has ruled Cuba with an iron hand for 47 years.
The seriousness of Mr. Castro’s condition was still unclear, but news he had relinquished power set off celebrations among Cuban exiles in Miami and prompted expressions of concern from leftist leaders in Latin America. A couple hundred demonstrators also rallied in Havana to show support for their president, calling him “the father of the people” and “the soul of the country,” according to televised reports.
There were unconfirmed reports the military had been placed on high alert today and civil-defense militias had been warned to brace themselves for any attempts to cause civil unrest and to keep an eye out for a United States invasion, residents said in telephone interviews.
Rumors ran along Havana’s streets. Some people pointed to the fact Mr. Castro’s initial message had been written on a computer as evidence his health was much worse than the government had let on.
“People are very disoriented,” one history professor said in a telephone interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared arrest. “Dissidents are worried and fear that at any moment there could be a wave of detentions.”
Raul Castro did not make any public appearances or issue any statements today. There was no official word about how the surgery had gone.
The streets of Havana were relatively quiet, as people went about their daily lives, trying to eke out a living in the island’s crippled economy.
“The situation is totally tranquil, normal,” said Armando Brindis, a government spokesman. “Everyone is working. There are no soldiers in the street. Nothing like that.”
Dora Fleites Gutierrez, 51, a hospital worker in the central city of Santa Clara, said a pall of sadness hung over the nation. “The people are experiencing fear and sadness at the thought of losing the commander,” she said. “But if the worst happens and he were to die, then his brother will remain and everything will continue to be the same. We don’t fear there will be a change with Raul. He has the same ideals.”
Mr. Castro has been a major world figure and a leftist hero since he and a band of guerillas forced Cuba’s previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista, from power in January 1959. He became an implacable enemy of the United States in the early 1960’s, allying the island with Communist Russia and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Kennedy administration.
Raul Castro, who is 75 and has served as defense minister for decades, has been at his brother’s side since the revolution. Though in his youth he was a Communist hardliner, he has shown signs in recent years of being more pragmatic in plotting Cuba’s future. He has seemed to lean toward China’s model of a one-party system with open markets.
In the early 1990’s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union devastated Cuba’s economy, it was Raul Castro who supported allowing more free enterprise for small-time entrepreneurs and expanding the island’s tourist sector. “Beans are more important than cannons,” he remarked.
As defense minister, he used Soviet aid to convert a ragtag guerilla force into one of the most formidable armies in the third world, sending advisers and troops into cold-war conflicts in Ethiopia, Vietnam and Angola.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Raul Castro changed with the times, adopting capitalist management practices to improve the efficiency of the 50,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces. Under his leadership, the army also obtained major stakes in industry and owns plantations, beach resorts and an airline.
Still, Raul Castro seems to lack the charisma, political skill and rhetorical brilliance of his brother. His detractors in the United States say he will find it hard to hold the regime together if Fidel Castro were to die.
The Cuban leader had already named his brother as his designated successor before Monday night, when he abruptly relinquished power to undergo emergency surgery. In his statement on Monday night, Mr. Castro blamed the strain of recent trips to Argentina and eastern Cuba for his failing health, saying stress “touched off an acute intestinal distress with sustained bleeding, which forced me to undergo delicate surgery.” He also suggested he would be unable to carry out his functions for several weeks. The statement was published in English today on the Miami Herald’s Web site.
In his Monday statement, Mr. Castro not only names his brother as the interim head of state, but takes pains to list the other members of his cabinet by name, saying in each case he delegates his function as “the main driving force” in the government to them.
Some analysts said Mr. Castro appeared to be transferring power to a junta, a collection of hardliners and technocrats that will likely hold the regime together so long as they can convince Cubans there is a threat from the United States.
“It’s a kind of collective leadership with Raul as the titular head,” said Julia Sweig, an expert on Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
She added, “The assumption is that Fidel and Raul are the only two guys on the island and that they can make or break it, when in fact its run by many more individuals whose institutional memory and political authority Raul will need.”
Mr. Castro’s health has been a closely guarded state secret for years. He has looked frail in the last two years, and in October 2004 he tripped and broke his left knee and right arm after a speech at the Che Guevara museum in Santa Clara. Determined to keep control of government affairs, he refused tranquilizers and general anesthetic during a three-hour operation to repair his knee.
The news that he was suffering from intestinal bleeding, however, took the world by surprise. The White House reacted cautiously, with a spokesman saying only that President Bush was monitoring the situation.
The leftist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who has forged a tight relationship with Cuba since his election earlier his year, wished the Cuban leader “a speedy recovery.” The government of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, another close ally of Mr. Castro’s, issued a statement claiming the Cuban strongman was “advancing positively” after surgery.
President Alan Garcia’s government in Peru, meanwhile, urged the Organization of American States to begin planning to do what it can to avoid a violent transition of power after Mr. Castro’s death. “Cuba could have a civil war, as there are opposition leaders and impassioned partisans of the regime,” Jorge del Castillo, Mr. Garcia’s chief of staff, told reporters.
The United States government has worked for decades to undermine Mr. Castro’s regime, and President Bush has tightened the four-decade-old embargo on trade with Cuba to that end. He also established the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which recommended a month ago that the United States should act quickly to help foster a transitional government in Cuba once Mr. Castro dies.
Sean McCormack, the spokesman for the State Department, made it clear today that the United States would take an active roll in shaping events on the island if the Cuban leader dies. “The United States and the American people will do everything that we can to stand by the Cuban people in their aspirations for a democracy,” he said.
[JG comment: Butt out Uncle Sam, you are not welcome in Cuba.]
President Bush said on Monday before Mr. Castro’s illness was announced that the United States policy would be to undermine Raul Castro’s succession to power. “We are actively working for change in Cuba,” the president said, “not simply waiting for change.”
[JG comment: Ditto to Bush and his cabal of neo-cons. You have not been able to bring "democracy" to Iraq. Keep your nose out of Cuba's internal affairs.]
Though most people went about their usual routines in Havana today -- jogging along the boardwalk, standing in line for buses, going to school and work -- some government opponents predicted the news of Mr. Castro’s surgery would be the start of larger changes for the island nation.
“It is clear that this is the start of the transition,” Manuel Cuesta Morua, a dissident, told The Associated Press.