January 14, 2009 / 3:19 PM / 11 years ago

Absence, silence stir speculation on Castro health

HAVANA (Reuters) - Fidel Castro’s absence from the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and a prolonged halt to his output of newspaper columns have raised concerns that the health of the 82-year-old former leader may be declining.

Cuba's leader Fidel Castro gestures during an interview on state television in Havana in this June 5, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Government TV/Handout

The Cuban government has said nothing about his condition, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close Castro ally, appeared to signal a problem when he spoke about him in elegiac terms on Sunday on his weekly radio and television show.

The Fidel Castro who “walked the streets and towns ... in his uniform and hugging the people, will not return. That will remain in memory,” Chavez said.

Castro has been ailing since he underwent surgery for an undisclosed intestinal ailment 2 1/2 years ago that forced him to cede power to his younger brother, Raul Castro, and go into semi-seclusion.

Since then, he has been seen only in occasional videos and photos, but has maintained a public profile by writing columns for state-run media.

He was producing an average of nine columns a month in 2008, but he has not published a new one since Dec. 15.

Many observers thought he might appear live or on television for the anniversary of his Jan. 1, 1959, victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista or the commemoration a week later of his triumphant arrival in Havana.

But he appeared at neither, in what was less a surprise than an affirmation that he had become a frail old man, said a Cuban office worker who gave her name only as Marlena.

“I guess he really is falling apart. It will be interesting to see what happens next,” she said.

Castro last appeared in a video in June, when Cuban television aired a report on his meeting with Chavez in Havana. He looked thin, but active and in better shape than in earlier appearances.

Since then, Castro has been seen in only two photos that came out in November. In both, he was standing and shaking hands, but looked less robust than in the June video.

GETTING WORSE

Cuba experts and diplomats said Castro’s absence from the anniversary events marking the 50 years since he brought communism to Cuba may mean he is getting worse or simply that the government did not want Cubans to see a frail version of their once-powerful leader.

“More important than how he might feel physically ... he simply does not look good,” said Frank Mora at the National War College in Washington. “I do not think that he and his cohorts want to project such an image of the comandante, especially if it’s his last.”

But concern about appearances, said a Western diplomat in Havana, would not explain why his steady stream of columns, or “reflections,” suddenly came to a halt two weeks before the Jan. 1 anniversary.

The frequency of the columns, in which Castro opines about current and past events, had come to be an informal barometer of his health.

Most readers had expected Castro to write about the anniversary, but, except for a brief note of congratulations to Cubans published on Jan. 1, he said nothing.

“Why didn’t he write a reflection about it? This was his moment and he said nothing. You have to wonder,” the diplomat said.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, one of a new generation of leftist leaders in Latin America, came to Cuba last week, but he, too, appeared to know little about Castro’s condition.

“I would love to see him, but I don’t know the state of his health,” Correa said.

Neither he nor Panamanian President Martin Torrijos, who visited Cuba a few days earlier, spoke with Castro.

Despite the questions, few are prepared to count out the willful Castro, who outlasted 10 U.S. presidents and five decades of their attempts to get rid of him.

He appeared to be at death’s door after his July 2006 surgery, but survived and was believed to still have a significant role in the government now led by Raul Castro, who succeeded him as president in February.

As recently as Nov. 28, he met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and 10 days before that with Chinese President Hu Jintao, both on official visits to Cuba.

It would surprise no one, said Dan Erikson at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, if Castro suddenly resurfaces.

“I think the less visible he is indicates declining health, with the caveat that there is no straight-line trajectory,” he said. “If Fidel is out of sight for a couple of months, it doesn’t mean that he won’t be on his feet greeting some foreign dignitary in the future.”

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