The New York Times
June 23, 2001

Castro Appears to Faint at Podium


              Filed at 9:10 p.m. ET

              HAVANA (AP) -- Fidel Castro apparently fainted before a crowd of thousands during a
              televised speech Saturday, but by the evening he was joking that it was only a rehearsal to
              see what kind of burial he would get.

              Aides helped Castro off the stage after his apparent fainting spell in the hot morning sun,
              but the Cuban leader returned to the podium a few minutes later to ensure the crowd he
              just needed some rest.

              ``I am whole!'' he insisted, to cheers.

              By evening, Castro looked rested and cheerful as he went back on live television --
              this time from an air conditioned broadcast studio. Those in the studio gave him a
              standing ovation.

              "It is my fault,'' Castro said of his growing weak during his earlier speech.
              "Collecting facts, reading so many documents'' until the wee hours.

              He also added jokingly that he lasted longer than a lot of other people during his
              morning appearance in the Caribbean sun.

              ``Another 665 citizens received assistance before I did,'' he said with a smile,
              referring to the members of the crowd who were carried away in stretchers by Red
              Cross workers.

              ``I joked that it was a rehearsal ... that I was playing dead to see what kind of burial
              they would give me,'' Castro told the studio audience.

              Castro said that after he was helped down the steps of the stage, he was taken to a
              nearby ambulance and given oxygen. He said that as he was taking his own pulse,
              he noticed that the ambulance was not moving and decided to return to the podium.

              ``I know that this caused a lot of people a lot of worry and I really feel bad about
              it,'' Castro added.

              Late Saturday morning, the 74-year-old Cuban leader, wearing his traditional
              long-sleeved uniform and heavy black boots, was about two hours into a speech
              under the bright sun with temperatures in the mid-80s when his body began listing to
              the side.

              Government cameras suddenly pulled away and focused on the crowd, filled with
              surprised and concerned faces. Some people gasped and some cried.

              ``Calmness and courage, we lift our flag,'' Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque
              said, taking the microphone immediately after Castro appeared to faint.
              ``Companero Fidel obviously has had in the middle of the heat ... a momentary fall.''

              It was the first time Castro appeared to faint in public and the first time in recent
              memory that he has been too weak to finish a speech.

              People at the rally said the president never fell, and that he was immediately helped
              off the stage by uniformed members of his security staff.

              Perez Roque indicated Castro kept a busy schedule recently, speaking Friday night
              at the opening of ballet school and then staying up late to prepare for the Saturday
              morning speech.

              Castro had made several other lengthy speeches over the past week.

              In the late afternoon, state television began re-airing the morning speech, in which
              the leader praised five Cubans who were recently convicted by a Miami jury of
              espionage charges.

              Havana has said the men were merely gathering information that Cuba needed to
              defend itself against violent attacks by its enemies in Miami's Cuban exile

              ``The commander in chief could not finish'' his speech, said a brief statement read on
              television before the regular news broadcast. ``The heat and the excessive sun have
              produced fatigue,'' it added.

              Castro has always kept a busy work schedule, giving several lengthy speeches every
              week and reportedly sleeping only a few hours a day -- if at all.

              The health of Castro, who has been in power in communist Cuba for 42 years, has
              been closely watched -- particularly by his political enemies in Miami, home to a
              large Cuban exile community.

              Although there have been numerous rumors about Castro's health over the years,
              the government never comments on them and rarely issues information about his
              medical condition.

              Castro regularly ridicules reports about his health. One, stemming from a 1998
              interview with a purported doctor that said Castro had been sedated to prevent a
              possible stroke, turned out to be false.