By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006
Cuban President Fidel Castro is very ill and close to death, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte said yesterday.
"Everything we see indicates it will not be much longer . . . months, not years," Negroponte told a meeting of Washington Post editors and reporters.
Castro relinquished power for the first time in 47 years after surgery July 31 for an undisclosed intestinal disorder. His brother, Raul, has assumed Castro's duties, but Cuban authorities have repeatedly insisted that he is recovering and eventually will return to office. He was last seen in an Oct. 28 video, shown on Cuban national television, in which he appeared gaunt and weak and warned that his convalescence would be lengthy.
The Cuban leader did not show up as anticipated at a Dec. 2 national celebration in Havana scheduled to commemorate his 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. In a brief speech at the event, Raul Castro imparted no message from his brother but said that Cuba is willing to open negotiations with the United States "to settle the long U.S.-Cuba disagreement."
In rejecting the offer this week, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon told reporters that the Bush administration will deal with Cuba's Communist government only when it shows a commitment to democracy. During the period of uncertainty under Raul Castro, Shannon said, "the regime has actually become harder and more orthodox and is not in a position to signal in any meaningful way what direction it will take post-Fidel."
Congressional advocates of easing long-standing U.S. sanctions against Cuba are scheduled to fly to the island today for a three-day visit exploring potential policy changes under Raul Castro. The bipartisan group of 10 is the largest congressional delegation to visit Cuba.