By ANITA SNOW
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 29, 2006; 5:06 AM
HAVANA -- Fidel Castro was too sick to meet thousands of admirers who traveled to Cuba for the kickoff of his delayed 80th birthday celebrations, according to a note purportedly from the ailing leader that raised new questions about his health.
The message, which was read to a crowd of 5,000 Tuesday at the Karl Marx Theater and on state TV, indicates that Castro is far from recovered from a mysterious ailment that forced him on July 31 to turn over power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.
The Cuban leader turned 80 on Aug. 13 but delayed his birthday celebrations as he recovered from surgery two weeks earlier for intestinal bleeding. Castro, who has not been seen in public for four months, wanted the delayed birthday celebration held on Dec. 2, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the date that he and fellow rebels landed by boat in Cuba to launch their revolution.
The announcement Tuesday raised doubts about whether he will appear at all.
The message read at the celebration's inaugural party said doctors had told Castro that he was not in condition to meet with a large crowd.
"I direct myself to you, intellectuals and prestigious personalities of the world, with a dilemma," said the note. "I could not meet with you in a small locale, only in the Karl Marx Theater where all the visitors would fit, and I was not yet in condition, according to the doctors, to face such a colossal encounter.
"My very close friends, who have done me the honor of visiting our country, I sign off with the great pain of not having been able to personally give thanks and hugs to each and every one of you," the note read.
The crowd responded with a standing ovation.
More than 1,300 politicians, artists and intellectuals from around the globe were attending the tribute to the man who governed this communist-run island for 47 years.
Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rene Preval of Haiti have confirmed their attendance, along with former Ecuadorean President Rodrigo Borja and Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega.
Also expected are Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona, South African singer Miriam Makeba and Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine human rights campaigner, was also expected.
Castro's good friend and political ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wasn't expected to come; he is up for re-election on Dec. 3. But Chavez has promised to dedicate his anticipated electoral victory to Castro.
Cuban officials insist Castro is recovering, but U.S. officials say they believe he suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and won't live through 2007. His ailment is a state secret.
Castro has been seen by the public only in photos and videos since he announced he was temporarily ceding power to his brother.
Some birthday activities include a three-day academic conference starting Wednesday, a concert with Cuban and other Latin American artists on Friday night, and an art exhibit.
More than 300,000 people are expected at a military parade on Saturday, the anniversary of the start of the revolution that was victorious on Jan. 1, 1959.