Castro, brother stay out of public view


GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- Neither ailing Fidel Castro nor the brother he has designated as acting president appeared in public or in the media yesterday, deepening a prevailing impression that the 79-year-old revolutionary is wrestling with the most severe health crisis of his life.

The official Communist Party newspaper Granma reiterated on its front page and Web site that Castro was in stable condition after undergoing surgery to stem intestinal bleeding. Parliamentary speaker Ricardo Alarcon, who said he talked with Castro for half an hour the previous day, told two U.S.-based radio programs that the Cuban leader is "very alive and very alert" but will need several weeks to recuperate.

Granma's full text of a statement read on national television Tuesday quoted Castro as saying he was in good spirits but details of his health constitute "a state secret." As well, the last word reportedly from Castro on his sickbed was riddled with grave characterizations of his condition that seemed intent on discouraging expectations he'll return to power soon.

Castro, who turns 80 next week, has experienced numerous illnesses, accidents, assassination attempts and dangerous encounters, always emerging after long public absences appearing fit and full of the fight that brought his leftist guerrilla movement to power more than 47 years ago.

While little is known about his current ailment, it has been described in statements attributed to Castro as "an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding," suggesting it was brought on by stress and a demanding travel schedule of late. He flew to Argentina last month for trade talks among fellow leftist leaders, then led anniversary celebrations of the July 26, 1953, assault on the Moncada military barracks near Santiago, the first battle of his revolution.

Alarcon, a former United Nations ambassador, told the New York-based Democracy Now radio program by phone from Havana that Castro's surgery was "complicated."

"He is forced to have a period of rest. He underwent complicated surgery. He's in, I would say, a normal period of recovery after an important surgery. I would say that he is doing fairly well," Alarcon said, then added: "I don't want to diminish the seriousness of the situation. ... He needs a lot of care and attention."

It remained unclear yesterday why Raul Castro, his brother and designated successor, has yet to address the Cuban people since taking command late Monday.

Raul Castro has long remained in his brother's shadow, but much fanfare surrounded his 75th birthday in June, when Cuba-watchers interpreted the unusual attention as confirmation that the long-reigning No. 2 was being groomed to succeed his brother.

A slightly stepped-up police presence was noticed in Havana, and residents seemed disinclined to engage in idle chat about the political moves under way at the highest levels of their country.

Cubans taking part in officially sanctioned demonstrations of support and wishes for a speedy recovery, such as a rally at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana by railway workers, were quoted by Granma as disparaging U.S. designs for a democratic transition in Cuba in a post-Fidel era.

Praising Castro for his revolution's gains in social welfare, crane operator Edilberto Ferrer was quoted as vowing that "this country will never have a transition to capitalism."

In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow urged Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits to refrain from taking to the seas to avoid triggering a panicked migration.

Snow told reporters that it was difficult for U.S. authorities to assess the situation in Cuba because Castro presides over "a closed society" but noted that it was "important at this juncture to tell people to stay where you are. This is not a time for people to be getting in the water and going either way."

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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