Agence France Presse -- English
October 21, 2004

Castro calls for calm after breaking knee, arm in fall


Cuba's leader for more than 45 years, broke his left knee and right arm in a fall, but urged the Caribbean country's 11 million people to stay calm, the government said Thursday.

Castro, 78, tripped and fell as he walked down some steps from a stage on Wednesday night after giving an hour-long speech at a graduation ceremony. The incident was shown live on Cuban television.

"The medical exam confirmed what the commander in chief himself anticipated, that after his accidental fall at yesterday's ceremony there is a fracture in his left knee and a fissure in the upper part of the humerus of the right arm, which will be treated appropriately," it added.

It also underscored that Castro "is in a good general state of health and his spirits are excellent."

The president "is fit to continue working on basic issues in close cooperation with the party leadership and the state," it added.

Castro "asked to have thanked in his name all of those who expressed their concern and solidarity. And he appeals to them to maintain calm," it said. "He believes he will make a quick recovery."

Castro stumbled as he descended step and fell on his side following a speech before graduates of an art school in Santa Clara, 280 kilometers (175 miles) east of Havana. The audience gasped and was stunned into silence.

But he quickly got up with the help of bodyguards and, sitting on a chair, hastened to assure the audience he remained in control.

"Please excuse me for having fallen," said Castro, who was clad in his trademark olive uniform.

"Just so no one speculates, I may have a fracture in my knee and maybe one in my arm," he continued. "But I remain in one piece."

"Trust that I'll do everything possible to recover as soon as possible, but, as you can see, even if I have to get casts, I can continue my work."

The audience then responded with cheers and thunderous applause.

The Cuban government, still in Cold War mode because of hostile relations with the United States, normally treats the medical condition of its leader as a state secret.

Castro joked about seeing pictures of himself on the floor in Thursday's international media and voiced confidence he would again make front-page news all over the world.

The president left before the event concluded and was driven away.

Before his fall Wednesday, Castro had visited the mausoleum of former comrade Ernesto Che Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967 as he was trying to foment a revolutionary uprising.

Flanked by Elian Gonzalez, the boy at the center of a bitter custody dispute between the United States and Cuba, Castro laid a wreath on Guevara's tomb.

In Miami, home to about 800,000 Cuban-Americans, many staunch Castro foes, had had higher hopes for Castro's tumble.

"I'm happy he got a good fall," said Guillermo Novo, laughing, at the Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana, a favored meeting spot for Cuban exiles. "I'm only sorry he did not get really badly hurt."

Another customer, Antonio de la Cova, said the entire Cuban nation, watching on television must have thought, and hoped: "he's dying, he's dying."

Castro, who has outlasted a US-abetted invasion attempt and 10 US presidents, defined the Cuba of the late 20th century by setting it brusquely apart from the decades of US dominance that followed the United States' 1898 victory in the Spanish-American War.

He became a statesman and an icon of international socialism, sending as many as 15,000 soldiers to help Soviet-backed troops in Angola in 1975, and dispatching forces to Ethiopia in 1977.

The Jesuit-educated lawyer, who came to power in 1959 at age 32, has been a perpetual thorn in the side of the United States, which was alarmed and embarrassed by Castro's establishment of a communist-bloc nation in the Americas, just 144 kilometers (90 miles) off its southeast flank.

A driving force behind the Non-Aligned Movement, Castro has been an always energetic symbol to developing countries that a sovereign nation, however small, could boldly thumb its nose at US policy and appear to get away with it.

"We've been looking forward to Castro's fall for years but this isn't what we had in mind," quipped one State Department official in Washington.