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Author Topic: U.S. keeps an eye on Fidel Castro's shaky health  (Read 1011 times)
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sharon
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« on: January 14, 2009, 02:00:20 PM »


http://www.miamiherald.com/581/story/851939.html

U.S. keeps an eye on Fidel Castro's shaky health

Fidel Castro's public absences have elevated unconfirmed reports of a grave illness. U.S. officials acknowledged that they were aware of the reports.

While recognizing that this kind of speculation happens periodically -- most recently in August 2007 -- those who deal with Washington on a regular basis say authorities aren't taking it lightly.

''High sources in Washington are saying that reliable sources have said that he has taken gravely ill,'' said University of Miami's Andy Gomez, who serves as an advisor to the U.S. Task Force on Cuba, an arm of the Brookings Institution think tank comprised of academics and former diplomats. ``They are monitoring this very closely, including looking for additional movements of security and troops. So far, none of this has happened.''

Castro's continued absence from public view, an unusually long break from published essays, failure to schedule private chats with recent visiting presidents and veiled remarks by Venezuelan ally Hugo Chávez has elevated the unconfirmed reports of the Cuban leader's pending death.

U.S. officials from the State Department acknowledged that they were aware of the reports on Castro's health but denied they were monitoring troop activities on the island. However, the White House issued a statement Tuesday by President George W. Bush to the Cuban people, which also appeared to serve as a message for President-elect Barack Obama, who has said he would ease travel restrictions to the island.

''As much of the world celebrates the dawning of a new year, Cuba marks 50 years of one of the cruelest dictatorships this hemisphere has witnessed,'' Bush stated. ``As long as there are people who fight for liberty, the United States will stand with them and speak out for those whose voices have been temporarily silenced.

''All Cubans have the right to be treated with dignity so that they can rise as high as their talents and hard work will take them,'' the statement said. ``This is the standard my administration and past administrations -- regardless of political affiliation -- have expected from the Cuban government as the condition for improved relations.''

Government sources in Cuba have said that Castro remained in control as recently as October, even making calls and barking orders to high-level officials. Sources on the island this week said Castro's recent absence was because he was exhibiting memory loss and incoherence.

It's been a month since Castro wrote a fresh newspaper column, known as Reflections, and almost two since his last published picture. No images were released of his November meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he was a no-show at the Jan. 1 celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the triumph of the revolution, and did not host recent visits by two Latin American presidents.

His last ''Reflection'' was published in Cuban newspapers on Dec. 15. And the last published picture, showing him glad-handing Chinese President Hu Jintao, was released Nov. 18. There also were no photos of his meeting with Argentine writer Stella Calloni in early December although she reported that he looked recovered and alert.

Panamanian President Martín Torrijos did not meet with Castro when he traveled to Cuba Jan. 3. And the Cuban leader did not write a column on Torrijos' visit. Instead, the Cuban government website posted a 1976 speech Castro gave in honor of Torrijos' father, Omar. Likewise, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador returned home last week saying he was unable to meet with Castro.

But the most disquieting comments came from Chávez, who during a weekly address Sunday said Castro would never return to public life and added that he would live on beyond physical life.

As rumors swept through the Cuban American community in South Florida, one exile leader said they appeared to be more serious than similar reports in the recent past.

''I believe Fidel Castro is finally in his final days of life,'' said Ernesto Díaz, secretary general of Alpha 66, one of the oldest anti-Castro militant organizations. ``In a not too distant future, he will cease to exist.''

''Chávez's statements that Castro will no longer make public appearences and the fact Castro himself has not written one of his periodic articles in a while are signs that all may not be well with him,'' Díaz added.

But another prominent member of Miami's Cuban American community said he was not sure the vague reports were true.

Max Lesnik, a local radio commentator who often travels to Cuba, said he talked to a high-ranking Cuban official by telephone on Monday and that the official -- a friend -- never raised the issue of Castro's health.

''We talked about many topics and not once did he make any reference to Castro or his health and I did not notice any tone of concern in his voice,'' Lesnik said. ``Nothing out of the ordinary.''

While acknowledging that Castro's prolonged absence is not business as usual, a veteran Cuba ******* urged against jumping to dramatic conclusions.

''I would tend to think there is something here,'' said Jaime Suchliki, director of the UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. ``Whether he is ill or getting better in a few days, who knows. But we will have to wait and see.

''He will die someday. Nobody is immortal. He is an 80-some-old man,'' Suchliki added. ``When we see the military in force on the street and hear funeral music, then we'll know something has happened.''

Miami Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy and El Nuevo Herald's Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this report.



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