U.S. intelligence officials, who appeared to be on a death watch for Cuban President Fidel Castro a few months ago, now believe his health is recovering and cannot rule out a full return to power.
“He probably has rebounded. Whether that means he’s ever going to experience a full recovery would be speculating,” a senior intelligence official said on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
“It certainly is possible. One can’t rule it out. And it’s the same thing with retaking power. I think it’s unlikely at this point, but we can’t entirely rule it out.”
Emergency stomach surgery last July forced Castro to hand over power temporarily to his brother, Raul Castro, and he has been seen since only in videotaped footage and in photographs.
Castro, who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States, is Washington oldest political foe and U.S. officials keep close watch on the Cuban leader’s health.
But U.S. intelligence has a poor record of information gathering in Cuba, dating to the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-trained exiles in 1961 that the CIA believed would spark an uprising against Castro that never happened.
Castro’s health, like his whereabouts and personal life, are secrets in Cuba and no details of his latest medical crisis have leaked outside his inner circle.
His absence from the public stage last year became the subject of speculation that he had terminal cancer. Former U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte said in a December interview that Castro was near death and told the Senate a month later that the Cuban leader’s days seemed to be numbered.
But in recent months, the Cuban government has presented an image of a recovering Castro capable of meeting with foreign dignitaries, intervening in state affairs and making his opinions known through newspaper op-ed columns.
“You could make the point that he already has returned in some form. But what is not a settled point at this stage is his precise role in government, what that will look like and how extensive that will be,” said another U.S. official.
Few experts believe Castro can regain his famous robust persona. But some believe he could acquire a decision-making role over a limited portfolio of issues such as foreign policy under a Cuban system that provides the leader of the 1959 revolution tremendous sway over state affairs.
U.S. intelligence officials now believe he had a botched operation last summer for a disorder of the large intestine known as diverticulitis, and follow-up surgery in November.
A full recovery could be complicated by other heath concerns, according to officials who believe he also suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
They also have not ruled out that he still has cancer and pointed to intelligence reports suggesting he may also suffer from the intestinal ailment known as Crohn’s disease.
Castro’s rebound became obvious to intelligence officials with signs that he had regained weight before last week’s meeting with Chinese officials.
“An 80-year-old man who’s gone for nine months and still wears a track suit when he meets with foreign dignitaries suggests this is an extremely serious illness still, even if he’s on the recovery,” the senior official said.