By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; A14
Cuban President Fidel Castro, a nemesis of the U. S. government for more than four decades, temporarily relinquished power on Monday for the first time in his long reign, saying he had undergone intestinal surgery.
Castro, whose government said he was hospitalized in Havana because of stress-related gastrointestinal bleeding, appointed his brother, Raul Castro, as temporary president of Cuba, leader of the nation's military and head of the Communist Party. A Cuban government source said late Monday night that while Castro's condition is serious, he is expected to recuperate.
In a statement read by one of his top deputies on national television, Castro said he would step away from power while he recovers. "The operation obligates me to undertake several weeks of rest," the statement said. Castro's intense schedule, the statement said, "provoked in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obligated me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure."
Castro, whose 80th birthday is Aug. 13, is known for working at a breakneck pace and sleeping only a few hours each night. In mid-July, he traveled to Argentina for a gathering of South American leaders to formalize Cuba's involvement in the Mercosur trade agreement.
He has asked that planned celebrations of his birthday be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. Castro and the rebels he led landed on the southern coast on that date in 1956, eventually taking power in 1959 after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled into exile.
The mood in Cuba was reported to be subdued. "We're really sad, and pretty shocked," Ines Cesar, a retired 58-year-old metal worker told the Associated Press in Havana. "But everyone's relaxed, too. I think he'll be fine."
In South Florida, which with Castro's rise became in many ways the capital of the Cuban exile, thousands of people spilled into the streets for an impromptu euphoric celebration. People in the crowd shouted "Cuba Libre!"
Cars lined up for miles on Calle Ocho in Miami, as well as in Hialeah and Westchester, with drivers blaring horns, screaming, banging pots and pans and waving Cuban flags.
"This is freedom for us," said Heydee Zamora, 49, the owner of a small business who was parading with a flag out her window. She came to Miami 39 years ago. "The tyrant is gone! We can see our country free at last!"
"I don't know if it's true or not but I've waited a long time for this," said Higinio Munoz, 47, a wedding photographer who came to Florida when he was 5.
Many thought of loved ones who have died during the long exile and Castro's long reign.
"My dad passed away in February," Munoz said. "My only regret is that he could not be here to celebrate with me."
Superficially, it was like a celebration of a pro sports championship -- the Miami Heat won this year -- but emotionally it was much more, many said.
"This is a different type of celebration," Joe Martinez, Miami Dade County Commission chairman said at a news conference at the county's Emergency Operations Center. "It's a celebration of hope. . . . We're celebrating now the freedom of a country."
The naming of Raul Castro is no surprise. He has long been considered the heir apparent to his older brother, even though he lacks his sibling's charisma or popularity.
Cuba expert Anne Louise Bardach, author of the bestselling book "Cuba Confidential," expressed skepticism about the report of Castro's surgery, suggesting that his condition could be more serious than stated.
"I find the timing peculiar and how it was handled in Havana post-surgery as opposed to pre-surgery," Bardach said late Monday evening. The late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco "is the model here. When and if Castro dies, I think we will find out about it days later, once the succession is in order, which has been carefully laid down and fine-tuned the last few years."
In her book, Bardach wrote: "Raul Castro shares the throne with his brother. The younger Castro wields immense power as defense minister along with other lofty sinecures."
Castro's longevity has made the question of his succession and what will happen to Cuba after his death one of the great political intrigues in the Western world. Even minor developments related to his health spawn breathless radio reports and huge headlines in Miami.
As speculation rages about his health, Castro has pondered his morality of late.
"I'm really happy to reach 80. I never expected, not least having a neighbor the greatest power in the world -- trying to kill me every day," he said at the Mercosur summit in July, according to the Reuters news service.
During a speech in July, Castro said he did not plan to rule until the age of 100. But his doctor said in a recent interview with The Washington Post that Cuba's leader is so healthy that he could very well live to be 140.
Staff writer Peter Whoriskey in Miami contributed to this report.