The Dallas Morning News
Thursday, October 21, 2004

Castro's public fall has Cubans buzzing

As usual, government tight-lipped about health

By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA News programs around the world broadcast startling images Thursday of Fidel Castro stumbling and falling, breaking his knee and fracturing his arm. But state-run Cuban television showed none of that, opting instead for Bugs Bunny, Popeye and other soft fare.

Still, Mr. Castro's tumble on Wednesday was all many Cubans were talking about. And a lot of what they learned came by word of mouth or, as Cubans call it, Radio Bemba Lips Radio.

Mr. Castro, 78, crashed to the ground after giving a nationally broadcast speech at a graduation ceremony in Santa Clara in central Cuba. Some Cubans say their television screens went black after the fall. Others say they saw the Cuban president stumble, but the image was blurry. A Cuban government statement issued at 3:14 a.m. Thursday said Mr. Castro suffered a broken left knee and a hairline fracture in his right arm but was in excellent spirits and in good enough condition to manage important national affairs.

The statement added, however, that only information that is "strictly indispensable" concerning the accident would be made public "for obvious reasons."

Outside Cuban government circles, the reasons for such secrecy aren't all that obvious. What Cubans know is that details of Mr. Castro's health and private life have been considered state secrets since he took control of the country in 1959.

Castro loyalists say they protect their leader's privacy to keep him safe from assassination attempts.

In sharp contrast, American politicians are expected to reveal exhaustive details of their health and private lives.

Soon after President Bush choked while eating a pretzel in January 2002, he appeared on television with bruises on his face and said, "Mother, I should have listened to you: Always chew your pretzels before you swallow."

Similarly, former President Bill Clinton confessed to reporters that his love of junk food and cheeseburgers probably led to his clogged arteries and bypass surgery in September.

Ninety miles from U.S. shores, it's a much different story.

Most Cubans know little about Mr. Castro's family, where he lives, what he eats or what he does in his spare time. And Cuba's main state-run newspaper, Granma, isn't about to uncover anything new. The paper never investigates government corruption, rarely reports on violent crime and doesn't even have an obituary section.

"If you look at Granma, you would think Cubans don't die. There's no page every day that gives you important people who die," said Frank Calzón, director of Center for a Free Cuba, an anti-Castro organization in Washington. "It's a very different media environment."

An Associated Press Television News cameraman caught Mr. Castro's fall on tape. Bodyguards and others helped the president into a chair. He asked for a microphone and tried to reassure the crowd of graduating art students.

"I am in one piece," he said. "You can count on me to do everything in my power to recover as soon as possible. As you can see, I am able to speak. Even if they put a cast on me, I can continue doing my work."

By then, some of the students were in tears.

"I am embarrassed for the possible suffering I may have caused because of this," Mr. Castro said before shunning an ambulance and leaving the scene in his customary black Mercedes.

"It could have happened to anyone," Havana economist Reinier Granado, 23, said later.

Of course, Mr. Castro isn't just anyone. The slightest hint of his mortality leads to questions over Cuba's fate after the leader of the Western Hemisphere's only communist nation is gone.

After a fainting spell during a speech in June 2001, Mr. Castro confirmed that his younger brother, Raul, the armed forces chief, would be his successor.

But a lot of Cubans hope the president doesn't fade away quite yet.

"I hope he lasts 120 years," said Antonio Suárez, 67, a retiree.