Tuesday, August 1, 2006
HAVANA, July 31 -- Fidel Castro temporarily relinquished his presidential powers to his brother Raul on Monday night and told Cubans he underwent surgery.
The Cuban leader said he had suffered gastrointestinal bleeding, apparently due to stress from recent public appearances in Argentina and Cuba, according to the letter read live on television by his secretary, Carlos Valenciaga.
"The operation obligates me to undertake several weeks of rest," the letter said, adding that extreme stress "had provoked in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obligated me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure."
Castro said he was temporarily relinquishing the presidency to his younger brother and successor Raul, the defense minister, but said the move was of "a provisional character." There was no immediate appearance or statement by Raul Castro.
It was the first time in his decades-long tenure that Fidel Castro has given up power, though he has been sidelined briefly in the recent past with occasional health problems.
He also asked that celebrations scheduled for his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Castro said he would also temporarily relinquish his duties as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba to Raul, who turned 75 in June and who has been taking on a more public profile in recent weeks.
In power since the triumph of the Cuban revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, Castro has been the world's longest-ruling head of government. Only Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, crowned in 1952, has been head of state longer.
Castro's ironclad rule has ensured that Cuba is still among the world's five remaining communist countries. The others are all in Asia: China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.
In Old Havana, waiters at a popular cafe were momentarily stunned as they watched the news. But they quickly got back to work and put on brave faces.
"He'll get better, without a doubt," said Agustin Lopez, 40. "There are really good doctors here, and he's extremely strong."
In the nearby Plaza Vieja, Cuban musicians continued to play for customers -- primarily foreign tourists -- sitting at outdoor cafes. Signs on the plaza's colonial buildings put up during a recent Cuban holiday said, "Live on Fidel, for 80 more."
"We're really sad, and pretty shocked," said Ines Cesar, a retired 58-year-old metal worker who had gathered with neighbors to discuss the news. "But everyone's relaxed too. I think he'll be fine."
When asked about how she felt having Raul Castro at the helm of the nation, Cesar paused and said one word: "normal."
Over nearly five decades, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled Castro's rule, many of them settling just across the Florida Straits in Miami.
Castro rose to power after an armed revolution he led drove out then-President Fulgencio Batista.
The United States was the first country to recognize Castro, but his radical economic reforms and rapid trials of Batista supporters quickly unsettled U.S. leaders.
Washington eventually slapped a trade embargo on the island and severed diplomatic ties. Castro seized American property and businesses and turned to the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance.
Talk of Castro's mortality was long taboo on the island, but that ended June 23, 2001, when he fainted during a speech in the sun.