Turning 80, ailing Fidel vows to 'fight'

August 14, 2006

Miami Herald

HAVANA - After days of upbeat reports about Fidel Castro's health, Cubans tried to make sense Sunday of his latest message, a sobering statement that urged optimism but warned of a potentially grim prognosis.

Many Havana residents spent Castro's 80th birthday as they would any other sweltering Sunday -- at the beach, playing dominoes and trying to beat the heat. But some of the few who had read or heard the latest on Castro's health said they were saddened but optimistic.

'I'm not worried,' said Luis, 43, as he strolled down the seaside Malecón. He said the dark message Sunday was meant to prepare the population for the inevitable, although he doesn't believe it will happen anytime soon. ``I have hope.'

The Castro brothers broke two weeks of silence Sunday, a day the ailing Fidel marked his birthday with a communiqué in which he vowed to 'fight' for his health.

For the first time, Cubans saw photos of their leader after his surgery for intestinal bleeding. And they saw images of his brother, acting president Raúl Castro, at the airport warmly greeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as he arrived in Havana to visit Fidel.

Chavez met with the ailing elder brother in the afternoon and gave him a dagger and a coffee cup that had belonged to South American independence fighter Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's state news service ABN said. No other details were provided.

Cubans interviewed seemed conflicted, many eager for their comandante's recovery but at the same time ready for change. But outsiders find it difficult to tell when Cubans are telling their true feelings or holding back out of fear of the government.

The throngs that attended a birthday concert Saturday night in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana seemed swept up in nationalistic fervor, eager to defend not just their nation, but their leader, too.

'It makes me sad, because we need him tremendously, not just Cuba, but all of Latin America,' said a man named Tomás as he walked along the Malecón with his 1-year-old daughter.

On Sunday, Cuba's Juventud Rebelde newspaper published the first photographs of Castro since his illness, showing him in a red, blue and white warm-up suit -- the colors of the Cuban flag -- under the headline, I feel very happy.


In a statement published on the paper's front page, Castro says he's better but admits the recovery period could be long and the prognosis risky. Cubans, he said, should brace themselves.

'I suggest to all of you to be optimistic, and at the same time to be always ready to confront any adverse news,' the statement said. ``To affirm that the period of recovery will last a short time and that there is no longer any risk would be absolutely incorrect.'

By Sunday evening, few Cubans had heard of the latest statement, apparently because Juventud Rebelde -- Rebel Youth -- has a much smaller circulation than Granma, the Communist Party's newspaper.

In Miami, exile leaders attacked alleged irregularities in the photos, saying the copy of Granma that Castro holds up looks more like a photocopy, which could have been made anytime.

'The pictures are an insult to the Cuban people, who deserve at least a public address,' said Cuban radio host Ninoska Pérez.

The photos released Sunday were credited to Estudios Revolución, a division of Castro's personal support group. The Associated Press could not independently confirm their authenticity.

'To all who wished me good health, I promise that I shall fight for it,' the statement read.

Castro announced two weeks ago he had 'complicated' surgery to stem intestinal bleeding. The next day he declared his condition a 'state secret,' and the public had not heard from him or his brother Raúl since.

The Cuban government had originally planned days of festivities to celebrate the Cuban leader's birthday. The parties have been postponed until Dec. 2, the anniversary of the armed forces.


Despite the delay, on Saturday thousands of people gathered outside the 'Plaza of Imperialism' outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for a late-night concert in Castro's honor. According to wire service reports, even U.S. Interests Section chief Michael Parmly showed up.

On this night, the black flags erected earlier this year to block the electronic billboard sign posted on the Interests Section were replaced with Cuban flags.

'Cuba yes, imperialism, no!' one announcer yelled soon after the party kicked off. It was not just a party to celebrate Castro, but also to celebrate Cuba as some thumbed their nose at the United States.

The crowd stretched for blocks under the watchful eye of Cuban police.

At midnight, partyers didn't sing Happy Birthday, but rather the Cuban national anthem. A photo of Castro waving a high-powered rifle flashed across TV screens before a still crowd of mostly young people born long after the revolution's triumph.

Mabelle, 22, echoing the sentiments of many Castro supporters that the revolution is bigger than him, said the ``revolution is eternal.'

'We want him to get better,' she said.

But if he should die, she said, ``[The revolution] will not end. The person he's put in charge will continue the struggle.'

But not everyone there wished Castro well.

'The majority of Cubans want him gone,' said one architecture student. ``He's a rigid dictator.'

Even Ricardo, a medical technician and self-proclaimed fidelista, conceded things need to improve.

'There are some things that need to be changed in Cuba,' he said, not offering any details. ``But if you compare Cuba to other Latin American countries, it will surpass all of them.'


Unlike the previous Sunday, when Catholics were asked to pray for the president's recovery, there was no official or unofficial proclamation at two Masses attended, including the Cathedral in Old Havana. Castro wasn't even mentioned in the part of the service where the congregation is asked to pray for world peace, the sick and the poor.

Asked why there were no birthday wishes at Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio in Old Havana, the Rev. Jorge Serpa said, ``There are plenty of other people celebrating their birthdays today.'

One bookseller named Blas may have best summed up the Cubans' apparent sentiments these days.

Castro, he said, ``is like the weather. You can't do anything to affect him, so there's no use worrying about it.'

This report came from Miami Herald staff writers in Havana; Breanne Gilpatrick and Andrea Torres in Miami; and translator Renato Pérez. It was written by Frances Robles in Miami. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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