Thursday 23 February 2017

Secrecy shrouded details of Fidel Castro's health

Paul Haven

AP Photo/Jose Goitia, File
AP Photo/Jose Goitia, File

Fidel Castro would always laugh off speculation about his health.

With an athletic build, and physical stamina that lasted well into his 70s, it seemed he would continue to rule for many more years.

Castro's own physician, a specialist in longevity, even suggested in 2004 that the leader could live to 140. "I am not exaggerating," Dr Eugenio Selman said.

So Cubans were stunned when their ageing, yet seemingly indefatigable leader announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and temporarily relinquished presidential powers on July 31 2006, 13 days before his 80th birthday.

He vanished from sight for four years, with videos and photographs of him being released only sporadically. Even his good friend and ally, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, said in early 2009 that he doubted Castro would ever return to the public stage.

But Chavez was wrong.

Then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro smokes a cigar during interviews with the press during a visit of U.S. Senator Charles McGovern, in Havana in this May 1975 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro smokes a cigar during interviews with the press during a visit of U.S. Senator Charles McGovern, in Havana in this May 1975 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Cuba's President Fidel Castro looks at the crowd during a mass rally in Cordoba, Argentina July 21, 2006. REUTERS/Andres Stapff/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro fights a yawn on the first day of the VII Ibero-American summit on Margarita Island in this November 8, 1997 file photo. REUTERS/Andrew Winning/File Photo
Then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro relaxes in a swimming pool during a visit to Romania in this May 28, 1972 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro (R) and then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (L) exchange documents during a treaty signing ceremony in Havana in this April 4, 1989 file photo. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/File Photo
Pope Benedict XVI meets former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana in this March 28, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Alex Castro-Cubadebate/Handout/File Photo
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) visits his then Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro in Havana in this August 13, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Estudios Revolucion-Granma/Handout/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro smokes a cigar during a meeting of the National Assembly in Havana, in this December 2, 1976 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (C) casts his ballot at a polling station in Havana in this February 3, 2013 file photo provided by Cubadebate. REUTERS/Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate/Handout/File Photo
Former South African President Nelson Mandela (L) hugs Cuba's President Fidel Castro during a visit to Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg in this September 2, 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Chris Kotze/File Photo
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (L) talk during a meeting in Havana in this March 30, 2011 file photo. The woman in the center is a translator. REUTERS/Alex Castro/Courtesy of Cubadebate/Handout/File Photo
Ernesto Che Guevara (front) plays golf as Fidel Castro stands behind him at Colina Villareal in Havana in this undated file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Cuban President Fidel Castro (R) winks at a woman at the graduation of hundreds of Cuban art students at Havana's Sports City in this October 28, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro addresses the audience during an event with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez on Havana's Revolution Square in this February 3, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro listens during a meeting with his brother Cuban President Raul Castro (R) and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (L) in Havana in this June 17, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Estudios Revolucion/Handout/File Photo
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and then Cuban President Fidel Castro (R) listen to the Cuban national anthem at the baseball stadium "Latinoamericano" in Havana in this May 14, 2002 file photo. REUTERS/Rafael Perez/File Photo
Cuban President Fidel Castro walks to the podium during the May Day commemoration ceremony in Revolution Square in Havana in this May 1, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Cuban President Fidel Castro salutes as the national anthem plays during a reception for the Cuban baseball team in Havana in this March 21, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro talks to then Pope John Paul II during the presentation of their delegations at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana in this January 22, 1998 file photo. REUTERS/Paul Hanna/File Photo
People are seen through a poster with a picture of Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro and late Argentine revolution leader Che Guevara (L) during the May Day parade in Havana's Revolution Square in this May 1, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/File Photo
Fidel Castro (L) is seen during a hunting trip in Romania in this May 1972 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Cuba's President Fidel Castro (L) talks to Elian Gonzalez during a political rally in celebration of Elian's 12th birthday in Cardenas, Cuba in this December 6, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro acknowledges the applause of the audience while standing underneath an image of late revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara, during the inauguration of games involving mainly Cuban and Venezuelan athletes in Havana in this June 17, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (L) holds up the arm of his brother, Cuba's President Raul Castro, during the closing ceremony of the sixth Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in Havana in this April 19, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/File Photo
Then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro attends manoeuvres during the 19th anniversary of his and his fellow revolutionaries arrival on the yacht Granma, in Havana in this November 1976 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro plays baseball in Havana in this August 1964 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Cuba's President Fidel Castro addresses the audience during an anti-Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) meeting in Havana in this April 28, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo/Files
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro addresses the audience during a political rally in celebration of the 12th birthday of Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez in Cardenas in this December 6, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro laughs during the year-end session of the Cuban parliament in Havana in this December 23, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro (R) and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez chat on the field after taking part in a friendly baseball game between their two countries at the Barquisimeto baseball stadium in this October 29, 2000 file photo. Picture taken October 29, 2000. REUTERS/Andrew Winning/Files
Cuba's President Fidel Castro attends a Mercosur trade bloc summit in Cordoba, Argentina in this July 21, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/David Mercado/File Photo
Cuba's President Fidel Castro gestures during a tour of Paris in this March 15, 1995 file photo. Ailing Cuban leader Castro said on February 19, 2008 that he will not return to lead the country, retiring as head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Files
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks during celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in Havana in this September 28, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/File Photo
Cuban President Fidel Castro (L) and Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona play with a ball during an interview in La Havana, in this October 26, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Canal 13/Handout/File Photo
Iin this Feb. 6, 1959 file photo, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro speaks to a crowd during his triumphant march to Havana after the fall of the Batista regime. Former President Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, has died at age 90. The bearded revolutionary, who survived a crippling U.S. trade embargo as well as dozens, possibly hundreds, of assassination plots, died eight years after ill health forced him to formally hand power over to his younger brother Raul, who announced his death late Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, on state television. (AP Photo/File)
Fidel Castro, left, raises his brother's hand, Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, as they sing the anthem of international socialism during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba.(AP Photo/Javier Galeano, File)
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro glances over his shoulder during the May Day commemoration at Revolution Square in Havana, in this May 1, 2004 file photo. Picture taken May 1, 2004. REUTERS/Rafael Perez/Files
Cuba's President Fidel Castro addresses the crowd at the Plaza de la Patria (Homeland Square) in Bayamo, Cuba, July 26, 2006. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Cuban President Fidel Castro listens to a speaker during the May Day parade in Havana's Revolution Square in this May 1, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (L) and his Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro joke after joining their medallions, given by medical graduates, at Havana's Karl Marx theatre, in this August 20, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro addresses the audience as president of the Non-Aligned Movement at the United Nations in New York, in this October 12, 1979 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo
Then Cuban President Fidel Castro (L) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez joke during a batting session where Chavez pitched to Castro after taking part in a friendly baseball game between their two countries at the Barquisimeto baseball stadium in this October 29, 2000 file photo. REUTERS/Andrew Winning/File Photo
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro attends the closing ceremony of the sixth Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in Havana in this April 19, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/File Photo
In this March 14, 1957 file photo, Fidel Castro, the young anti-Batista guerrilla leader, center, is seen with his brother Raul Castro, left, and Camilo Cienfuegos, right, while operating in the Mountains of Eastern Cuba. Cuban President Raul Castro has announced the death of his brother Fidel Castro at age 90 on Cuban state media on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew St. George, File)
In this Aug.18, 1999 file photo, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro gestures at a speaking event as he explains that he does not understand why he is not blind after all the camera flashes he has received in Havana, Cuba. Former President Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, has died at age 90. The bearded revolutionary, who survived a crippling U.S. trade embargo as well as dozens, possibly hundreds, of assassination plots, died eight years after ill health forced him to formally hand power over to his younger brother Raul, who announced his death late Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, on state television. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia, File)
In this April 19, 2016 file photo, Fidel Castro attends the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. Fidel Castro formally stepped down in 2008 after suffering gastrointestinal ailments and public appearances have been increasingly unusual in recent years. Cuban President Raul Castro has announced the death of his brother Fidel Castro at age 90 on Cuban state media on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP, File)
China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (L) writes in a notebook as former Cuban leader Fidel Castro holds it during a meeting in Havana in this August 1, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Roberto Chile/File Photo
Cuban President Fidel Castro attends a conference on terrorism in Havana's convention centre June 3, 2005. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo/File Photo
Cuba's President Raul Castro announces the death of his brother, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, in a still image from government television in Havana, Cuba November 26, 2016. Cuban Television via Reuters TV
FILE - In this Jan. 25, 1998 file photo, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro, left, greets former Pope John Paul II at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Former President Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, has died at age 90. The bearded revolutionary, who survived a crippling U.S. trade embargo as well as dozens, possibly hundreds, of assassination plots, died eight years after ill health forced him to formally hand power over to his younger brother Raul, who announced his death late Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, on state television. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson, File)

In July 2010 Castro surprised everyone when he was photographed meeting scientists at a Havana institute, then gave an interview on state television. Soon he seemed to be popping up everywhere, meeting economists, veterans and even visiting the aquarium.

He used the publicity to warn the world of what he described as the threat of a nuclear war pitting the United States and Israel against Iran.

The revolutionary leader looked frail but mentally sharp, and he seemed to gain strength with each appearance.

By September, Castro was strong enough to give two outdoor speeches under Havana's blazing sun: the first on the steps of Havana University, and the second in front of the capital's former presidential palace.

That second speech went on for more than an hour and was attended by tens of thousands of people, and Castro felt comfortable enough to poke fun at his long-faded reputation for oratorical endurance.

"We haven't even been here two hours," he grinned in conclusion. "But I'm leaving now. It's getting hot."

Castro's re-emergence proved short-lived. By 2011 he was seen less and less often. At a brief appearance at a key Communist Party Congress in April 2011, Castro formally resigned as party leader and he appeared unsteady as he was led to his seat by a young aide.

He had apologised in an article days earlier for not having attended a march marking the 50th anniversary of Cuba's victory at the Bay of Pigs invasion.

"Believe me that I felt pain when I saw that some of you were looking for me on the dais," Castro wrote. "I thought everyone understood that I can no longer do what I have done so many times before."

After his resignation, the length of time between Fidel's appearances grew and he appeared older and weaker each time. After a January 8 2014 appearance at a Havana art exhibit, he did not appear in public for at least a year. Photos of Castro with world leaders appeared only a handful of times in 2014.

Cuba's government has never said officially what Castro was suffering from when he fell ill, even when he announced in February 2008 that he was resigning for health reasons. But it was widely reported to have been complications involving diverticulitis, an intestinal ailment common in older people.

Castro gave a few details of just how sick he was in an August 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, saying his weight fell to 145 pounds (66 kilograms). That is extremely thin for a man known for his large frame.

"I was at death's door, but I came back," Castro told the paper.

In the interview, Castro described lying in a hospital room during the illness, hooked up to machines, and wondering how long it would be before his suffering would be over.

"Laid out in that bed, I could only see what was around me, machines I did not understand," Castro said. "I didn't know how long this torment would continue. The only thing I could hope for was that the world would stop."

"But I recovered," he added, proudly.

Months after falling ill, Castro acknowledged he underwent numerous surgeries for his condition and at least one had gone badly, almost killing him.

Cubans first had to face up to their president's advancing age when, on June 23 2001, he fainted briefly while giving a speech in the searing sun.

They were again reminded of his frailty when he fell after giving a speech on October 20 2004, shattering a kneecap and breaking an arm.

Although he was back in public within two months, a report in 2005 said Castro suffered from Parkinson's disease.

On rare occasions, Castro did acknowledge his mortality, especially as he grew older.

"I promise that I will be with you, if you so wish, for as long as I feel that I can be useful - and if it is not decided by nature before," Castro said in March 2003, accepting a sixth term as president of Cuba's governing body.

Press Association

Read More

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in World News