Date of Castro's return up in the air

November 7, 2006

Miami Herald- Vanessa Arrington

HAVANA - Cuba's foreign minister stepped away from an earlier assertion that Fidel Castro would return to power in December and declined to say whether the ailing Cuban leader would be well enough to attend next month's celebration of his 80th birthday.

Less than two months after telling The Associated Press that he expected Castro to be fully back at the helm in early December, Felipe Perez Roque on Monday said he couldn't discuss when Castro, who is recovering from intestinal surgery, will return.

'It's a subject on which I don't want to speculate,' the minister told The AP in an interview. Castro's return, he said, ``will come when it's the right moment.'

Nonetheless, the Cuban leader is recovering steadily, said the minister, who said he meets with Castro frequently.

'He looks good. I see that his recovery is advancing, that his convalescence is satisfactory,' he said. ``We are optimistic and happy. The only ones who are sad are our enemies, who were all prepared to celebrate [his death].'

Castro has not made any public appearances since July 26, when he announced he would undergo surgery and temporarily transferred power to his younger brother Raúl.

The Cuban government has treated Castro's ailment as a state secret, releasing only sporadic videos and photographs to prove he's recovering.

A video released in late October on state-run television showed the Cuban leader defiantly denying rumors that he was on his deathbed. Yet some Cubans say they were surprised to see how frail he remained.

Castro turned 80 on Aug. 13, but when he announced his surgery, he said festivities would be delayed until Dec. 2.

Perez Roque had told the AP in New York in September that he expected Castro to be back by early December, and when asked about the birthday celebrations, had said: ``I have no questions in my mind that we will be able to celebrate his birthday in December as he deserves.'

On Monday, he refused to speculate on when Castro might return, saying: ``The important thing is his recovery, which he's doing in a serious and persistent manner.'

The transfer of power to Raúl Castro went smoothly, and while many Cubans grumble about economic struggles on the island, they have seemed to accept the younger Castro as their leader, albeit temporarily. Perez Roque acknowledged that the Cuban government faces some discontent, and even said some changes could be on the horizon.

'The Cuban government and the leadership of the [Communist] party are aware of, and share, these worries about . . . difficulties with the quality of life of the people,' he said. ``All of our efforts are focused in the direction of finding solutions to these problems.'

While Perez Roque said the U.S. trade embargo is first to blame for scarcity of goods and lack of economic opportunity on the island, he also acknowledged Cuban 'errors' and ``insufficiencies.'

'Does our economy require that we make decisions to change some things, to fix what is wrong? Yes,' he said. ``And it can be done, in the right moment.'

Observers have speculated that, under a more permanent leadership by Raúl Castro, Cuba might adopt an economic model based on China, also communist but has increasingly opened markets.

Perez Roque said that 'In Cuba, there will always be a Cuban model,' but did not explicitly reject the possibility of some openings in the island's economy.

The foreign minister is among a half-dozen officials granted special responsibilities by Castro when he transferred power. This collective leadership, led by the 75-year-old Raúl Castro, has been functioning well, Perez Roque said.

'For us young ones, it has not only been a privilege but also more schooling,' said the 41-year-old, who was put in charge of monitoring the budgets for Cuba's health, education and energy programs along with Central Bank President Francisco Soberon and Vice President Carlos Lage, who is 55.

Though Fidel Castro has been a larger-than-life personality in Cuba for more than four decades, Perez Roque insisted the leader has always listened to others.

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