HAVANA — Fidel Castro, who took control of Cuba in 1959, rebuffed repeated U.S. attempts to oust him and survived communism’s demise almost everywhere else, temporarily relinquished his presidential powers to his brother Raul on Monday night because of surgery.
Castro, less than two weeks away from his 80th birthday, did not appear on the live television broadcast in which his secretary read a letter from the Cuban leader. It was the first time in 47 years of absolute rule that Castro has given up power.
In the note read by secretary Carlos Valenciaga, Castro said he underwent surgery after suffering gastrointestinal bleeding, apparently due to stress from recent public appearances in Argentina and eastern Cuba. It was not immediately clear when the surgery took place.
“The operation obligates me to undertake several weeks of rest,” the letter read. Extreme stress “had provoked in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obligated me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure.”
Castro, who has been affected in the recent past with occasional health problems, said he was temporarily relinquishing the presidency to his younger brother and successor Raul, the defense minister, but said the move was of “a provisional character.” There was no immediate appearance or statement by Raul Castro.
The calm delivery of the announcement appeared to signal that there would be an orderly succession to Raul should Fidel become permanently incapacitated.
Miami Cubans cheer news
The announcement drew cheering crowds in the streets in Miami. People waved Cuban flags on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, shouting “Cuba, Cuba, Cuba,” hoping that the end is near for the man most of them consider to be a ruthless dictator. Many of them fled the communist island or have parents and grandparents who did.
The elder Castro asked that celebrations scheduled for his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Castro said he would also temporarily delegate his duties as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba to Raul, who turned 75 in June and who has been taking on a more public profile in recent weeks.
It was unknown how serious Castro’s condition was. But “any major surgery in a 79-year-old person is life-threatening,” mainly because of risks for complications such as pneumonia, blood clots and strokes, said Dr. Stephen Hanauer, gastroenerology chief at the University of Chicago hospitals.
In power since the triumph of the Cuban revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, Castro has been the world’s longest-ruling head of government. Only Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, crowned in 1946, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, have been head of state longer.
The “maximum leader’s” ironclad rule has ensured Cuba remains among the world’s five remaining communist countries. The others are all in Asia: China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.
Streets in Havana, including the coastal Malecon highway where young people often congregate, were typically quiet late Monday. In Old Havana, waiters at a popular cafe were momentarily stunned as they watched the news. But they quickly got back to work and put on brave faces.
“He’ll get better, without a doubt,” said Agustin Lopez, 40. “There are really good doctors here, and he’s extremely strong.”
In the nearby Plaza Vieja, Cuban musicians continued to play for customers — primarily foreign tourists — sitting at outdoor cafes. Signs on the plaza’s colonial buildings put up during a recent Cuban holiday said, “Live on Fidel, for 80 more.”
“We’re really sad, and pretty shocked,” said Ines Cesar, a retired 58-year-old metal worker. “But everyone’s relaxed, too. I think he’ll be fine.”
When asked about how she felt having Raul Castro at the helm of the nation, Cesar paused and said one word: “normal.”
A leading Cuban government opponent in Havana said she believed Castro must be gravely ill to have stepped aside temporarily.
“It’s almost the same as death,” Martha Beatriz Roque said in a telephone interview. “No one knows if he’ll even be alive Dec. 2 when he’s supposed to celebrate his birthday.”
Strained ties with U.S.
In Washington, White House spokesman Peter Watkins said: “We are monitoring the situation. We can’t speculate on Castro’s health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba’s freedom.”
Castro rose to power after an armed revolution he led drove out then-President Fulgencio Batista. The United States was the first country to recognize Castro, but his radical economic reforms and rapid trials of Batista supporters quickly unsettled U.S. leaders.
Washington eventually slapped a trade embargo on the island and severed diplomatic ties. Castro seized American property and businesses and turned to the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance.
On April 16, 1961, Castro declared his revolution to be socialist. The following day, he humiliated the United States by capturing more than 1,100 exile soldiers in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The world neared nuclear conflict on Oct. 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. After a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev removed them.
Meanwhile, Cuban revolutionaries opened 10,000 new schools, erased illiteracy, and built a universal health care system. Castro backed revolutionary movements in Latin America and Africa.
But former liberties were whittled away as labor unions lost the right to strike, independent newspapers were shut down and religious institutions were harassed. Over nearly five decades, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled Castro’s rule, many of them settling just across the Florida Straits in Miami.
Castro continually resisted U.S. demands for multiparty elections and an open economy despite American laws tightening the embargo in 1992 and 1996.
He characterized a U.S. plan for American aid in a post-Castro era as a thinly disguised attempt at regime change and insisted his socialist system would survive long after his death.
Fidel Castro Ruz was born in eastern Cuba, where his Spanish immigrant father ran a prosperous plantation. His official birthday is Aug. 13, 1926, although some say he was born a year later.
Talk of Castro’s mortality was long taboo on the island, but that ended June 23, 2001, when he fainted during a speech in the sun. Although Castro quickly returned to the stage, many Cubans understood for the first time that their leader would one day die.
Castro shattered a kneecap and broke an arm when he fell after a speech on Oct. 20, 2004, but typically laughed off rumors about his health, most recently a 2005 report that he had Parkinson’s disease.
“They have tried to kill me off so many times,” Castro said in a November 2005 speech about the Parkinson’s report, adding he felt “better than ever.”
But the Cuban president also said he would not insist on remaining in power if he ever became too sick to lead: “I’ll call the (Communist) Party and tell them I don’t feel I’m in condition ... that please, someone take over the command.”
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