HAVANA — Fidel Castro was in his element Thursday night. He not only had a room full of college students, his preferred audience, but lots of fresh material from his nemesis to the north to poke fun at.
A few days earlier, a U.S. official leaked an intelligence report on Castro’s health, suggesting that the aging Cuban leader suffers from Parkinson’s disease. A flurry of world press reports ensued, from Miami to London, quoting Havana watchers, who warned that an incapacitated Castro who held on to power would spell turmoil for the island.
Castro stood at the podium for more than five hours, his posture alone belying the CIA assessment that his health was failing. Lucid and animated, Castro exhibited no Parkinson’s symptoms of tremors or shaking. Instead, as the night wore on, the Cuban leader became more energetic.
“I’m working harder than ever and feel better than ever,” Castro said.
Castro not only discounted the Parkinson’s rumor but also dismissed the stigma of having the disease.
“They say Castro has this or that illness. The last thing they invented is that I have Parkinson's," Castro said. "I don't care if I get Parkinson's. The pope (John Paul II) had Parkinson's and he spent years traveling the world.” The pontiff, at 84, died last April.
The Cuban president did admit that he was still recovering from a fall in October 2004 where he fractured his right arm and knee. “The doctors demand that I work hard at rehabilitation and I’ve learned to make the best of it.”
In characteristic machismo bravado, the 79-year old Castro said that meant making sure he could still handle the Browning pistol he has carried since his days as a revolutionary.
Castro’s health has been the subject of speculation almost since the day he took power but fueled more recently by his slower pace as he gets older and periodically disappears from public view.
Sometimes the rumors start in Cuba. Other times, across the Florida Straits. One buzz will have him suffering a stroke or a heart attack. Other times, it is brain cancer or a rare form of leukemia.
Instead of ruffling him, Castro seems to relish rumors about his death.
"They’ve killed me so many times," he joked. "They kill me every day. The day that I really die, nobody will believe me."
In the nationally televised speech marking the 60th anniversary of the day he began law school, Castro promised that if his health ever was to fail, he would retire from public life.
“If I find myself unable to continue, I would notify the (Communist) Party and tell them,” said Castro, who has ruled Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. “Someone else would then take over.”
That would be the man he designated — younger brother Raúl Castro, the 74-year old Minister of the Defense.