Castro denies health rumors


HAVANA -- Rebutting reports that he is suffering from Parkinson's disease, Cuban President Fidel Castro told the nation in a televised speech ending early yesterday that he is feeling "better than ever."

Dressed in his trademark combat fatigues, a seemingly fit Castro stood at a platform for close to six hours and joked about an American intelligence assessment that he may be suffering from Parkinson's and could deteriorate in coming years.

"They have tried to kill me off so many times," Castro said.

But diplomats and experts say that only Castro's inner circle - including a team of top-flight physicians - know whether the 79-year-old Cuban leader has Parkinson's or any other chronic ailment or is merely showing signs of aging.

"We were always trying to figure that out," Vicki Huddleston, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1999 to 2002, said in a recent interview. "It's all speculation. We really don't know."

Like most aspects of his personal life, Castro's health is a closely guarded secret.

Reports of Castro's failing health have surfaced over the years and ranged from strokes to cancer to heart and kidney failure.

But others point out that Castro shows tremendous endurance for a man his age and thrives on being in the spotlight. The Cuban leader gave up cigar smoking more than a decade ago.

"He has a strong constitution and a strong will and he is very determined to outlive all his old enemies," Huddleston said. "He's doing pretty well."

Gary Marx writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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