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Castro recovers health, but not role

Many Cuba watchers expect him to remain on the sidelines.

By DAVID ADAMS
Published May 25, 2007


MIAMI - Cuban leader Fidel Castro has yet to appear in public since falling ill last July.

But this week he ended a long silence about his health, issuing a signed statement late Wednesday saying he was eating solid foods and had regained weight.

The statement appears to confirm his slow recovery from intestinal surgery last year. But, it also reinforces the growing conviction among some Cuba watchers that Castro is not contemplating a full return to power and may instead be content to occupy a back-seat political role for the remainder of his life.

"This is the clearest indication in his own words, " said Brian Latell, the CIA's former chief Cuba analyst who teaches at the University of Miami. "I don't think he's ever going to be back governing the way he did in the past."

Latell and others say the 80-year-old communist leader could be close to permanently abdicating his official duties as head of state. He temporarily ceded power in July to a collective leadership headed by his younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, 75.

"I think he's abdicated already, " said Tony Zamora, a Cuban-American lawyer in Miami who visits Cuba regularly. "He will continue to be consulted and listened to, of course, but I don't see him coming back at all."

Despite his absence from public view, in recent weeks Castro has taken to penning a series of "Reflections" in Granma, the state-run newspaper, on issues that concern him, such as the use of food crops to produce biofuels.

He has noticeably declined to comment on day-to-day domestic issues facing the Cuban government.

While Castro's imposing aura and larger-than-life personality can never be underestimated, experts question whether his essays in Granma can substitute for the kind of direct control he once enjoyed.

"He is disconnecting himself - or he is being disconnected - from the entire Cuban dialogue about what they need to do economically, " said Latell. "Whether it's forced or voluntary isn't clear."

Perhaps the most forthright verdict on Castro's condition came recently from his niece, Mariela Castro, a leading Cuban sexologist and AIDS activist, who has lately emerged as an unofficial spokeswoman for the family.

She told reporters that although her uncle was "improving rapidly, " he will "not govern again in the same fashion as before." She noted that he was "very respectful in not wanting to interfere in the decisions being made" by his brother's government.

The way in which Fidel Castro's comments were made public appear to fit that pattern.

Castro's description of his health condition was tacked on at the end of an unrelated "Reflection" on the latest figures on world cereals production.

After mentioning the importance of replacing incandescent light bulbs with newer energy-saving compact fluorescent ones, he switched subjects.

"I shall digress now to tackle a topic which deals with my person, and I ask for your indulgence, " he wrote.

He then proceeded to give the most detailed account of his health since he fell ill. After "many months" of intravenous feeding, he was eating and his weight was back up to 176 pounds. "Today I receive orally everything my recuperation requires, " he wrote.

Castro also for the first time confirmed reports that his initial surgery had failed.

"It was not just one operation, but various, " he wrote. "Initially it was not successful and that had a bearing on my prolonged recuperation."

Looking frail, Castro has appeared periodically in official photographs and video published in Cuba's state media. In late March he was seen in an outdoor photograph with Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In late April he was shown meeting with a delegation from China at the hospital where he is convalescing.

But he surprised his followers by failing to appear during a big annual May 1 parade.

Castro on Wednesday apologized for the recent lack of official images. "I don't have time now for films and photos that require me to constantly cut my hair, beard and mustache, and get spruced up every day, " he wrote.

"He cannot shave and he can't take a haircut. That's really weird, " said Zamora. "He is clearly saying, 'My role has changed. I was really sick and I need to take care of myself, so I'm not coming back.' "

While experts remain unsure exactly what kind of role Castro will play, the ailing leader may have provided the answer Wednesday.

"For now, I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, reflecting and writing about questions that I judge of certain importance and transcendence, " he wrote. "I have a lot more material to go."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com