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Questions Mount Concerning Cuban Leader Fidel Castro


It has been more than 10 days since Cuba announced that President Fidel Castro had undergone gastrointestinal surgery and temporarily transferred executive authority to his brother, Raul. Since then, there has been no independent confirmation of Mr. Castro's state of health. The lack of information has generated suspense and much conjecture about the condition of world's longest-serving president, who turns 80 Sunday.

Cuban officials have told the island's government-controlled news media that Fidel Castro's health condition is being kept as a state secret, given what they describe as U.S. threats and plots to forcibly change Cuba's form of government. But they insist Mr. Castro's recovery from surgery is going well, that he is able to sit up in bed and read documents, and that doctors anticipate a return to presidential duties in a matter of weeks or months.

Cuba watchers say such upbeat assessments are to be expected from Fidel Castro's top lieutenants, but add that, for now, they have nothing else on which to base any judgments. At the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies, senior fellow Andy Gomez says the world is in the dark when it comes to Fidel Castro's condition.

"We have not seen any facts that we can analyze and say, 'This is what is going on.' We do not know," he said.

But what is to be made of the dearth of information, including the lack of any photos of Mr. Castro since his operation? Gomez says there are several possible explanations. One is that Fidel is, as Cuban officials say, on the road to recovery, and that the government prefers to withhold details until he is able to fully resume presidential duties.

Another possibility, according to Gomez, is that the government is still in the process of implementing plans drawn up for the post-Castro period, and is hiding the severity of Fidel's health problems to buy themselves more time.

"The silence can also be interpreted as making sure that the security apparatus is put in place, so if and when Fidel becomes gravely ill, leading to his death, they can prevent any kind of protest [unrest] throughout the island," he added.

For many Cuban exiles in Florida and elsewhere, every passing day without evidence of Mr. Castro's condition adds to their growing belief that, dead or alive, his days as "maximum leader" are over.

At Miami's leading Cuban-American radio station, Radio Mambi, the consensus opinion of commentators, analysts and callers alike is that Fidel Castro is finished as a leader, and that the rule of Raul Castro, 75, who has also not been seen in public, will be brief. Many argue that, were Fidel Castro well enough to pose for a picture, such a photo would have been distributed by now.

But a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Wayne Smith, cautions against reading too much into the habits of Cuban officials when it comes to divulging anything about Fidel Castro.

"I would not read too much into it because their system is quite different," he said. "They do not have a free press; the media is controlled. [Ricardo] Alarcon, the President of the [Cuban] National Assembly, and a number of other public figures have said that he [Fidel] is doing well, he is recuperating. And I think from their point of view, given the kind of system they have, they feel that is enough."

Smith notes that Cubans on the island have reacted with calm to news of their leaders ailing health, and that in the absence of unrest there is little pressure on officials to be more forthcoming about Mr. Castro's status.

Nevertheless, with Fidel's long-anticipated 80th birthday just days away, Smith says, if officials on the island were inclined to release a photo of Mr. Castro, his birthday would be a perfect opportunity.

Cuba has postponed official celebrations of Fidel's birthday until early December.