The Washington Post
Thursday, July 5, 2001

Castro's Fainting Spell Shatters Taboos

By Andrew Cawthorne

HAVANA—Down on Havana's seafront Malecon boulevard, where Cubans gather on the wall to enjoy the breeze and watch the world go by, the talk is usually of
everyday matters like fishing, the price of beans, or baseball.

But something changed in Cuba at 11:22 a.m. on Saturday June 23, and since then the Malecon, like other favorite gossip spots around the Caribbean island, has
been abuzz with more weighty topics of conversation.

That was the moment President Fidel Castro, who for 42 years has maintained an image of invincibility in front of his own people, briefly collapsed from heat and
exhaustion in front of 70,000 supporters and millions of television viewers.

Although Castro was resuscitated in an ambulance and was back on his feet within seven minutes, the incident shocked the nation, emphasized his human mortality,
and broke taboos over open discussion of the future of Cuba after "El Comandante".

The two big talking points that Cubans were often hesitant to discuss openly before June 23 are how long the 74-year-old Castro will remain in power and who will
replace him, both in the short- and medium-term, once he goes.

"He still looks strong to me, but who knows? At that age, anything can happen. ... After the fainting, it really hit us that he won't live forever," said Joel, a fisherman,
casting his line into the glass-still water on a hot Sunday morning.

"There was a lot of anxiety, and even panic, in our street when we saw him falling on television, because the camera changed and we didn't know what was
happening," said teenager Antonio, out for a stroll with his girlfriend. "People were relieved when he came back, but everyone's talking about what will happen next
time this happens, and it's more serious."

The politically savvy Castro, probably embarrassed by all the international and domestic fuss over what was his first failure ever to finish a public speech or act, has
typically sought to wrest the initiative from the situation.

Within minutes of slumping over, he reappeared in front of the crowd to reassure them he was "fine" and, despite promising to be more "prudent" in the future, he was
again leading an anti-U.S. rally of 40,000 people less than a week later.

After that demonstration, Castro held a lengthy chat with journalists in which he gave some of his most candid reflections to date about his mortality and the future of
the Communist society he will bequeath to Cuba.

Although proclaiming his health "better than ever," he also commented with an eye to the future: "I ask the people to forgive me, the day something happens to me, for
the passing displeasure it might cause."

He gave the strongest nod to date to his brother Raul, head of Cuba's armed forces and No. 2 in the political hierarchy, as his successor. "If they tell me tomorrow
morning, you're having a heart attack, a sudden death, or if I have an accident ... and I go to sleep for eternity, Raul is the one with most authority and experience."

Theories on Cuba's future after Castro may be manifold -- ranging from predictions of civil strife to assurances the ruling Communist Party will ensure a smooth
transition and anything in-between—but most tend to agree Raul Castro, 70, will figure prominently in the immediate post-Fidel scenario.

While he lacks his older brother's crowd-pulling charisma, he has a strong power base in the military, impeccable revolutionary credentials since he fought with his
brother to bring about the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and, now, the authority that comes with public endorsement by the "Maximum Leader."

Many analysts think Raul Castro would be likely to co-opt some of today's senior officials, possibly in a shared leadership that might consider gentle reforms to the
one-party political system and state-run economy once the dust settles.

They include Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 36, a former student leader and personal aide to Fidel Castro who impressed many by the way he took the
microphone and calmed the crowd after his boss collapsed.

Also in contention would be National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, 64, a seasoned leader who is Castro's unofficial pointman on U.S. affairs, and Vice
President Carlos Lage, 49, considered the architect of Cuba's economic policy.

"It's not just Raul," Fidel Castro emphasized in his chat with journalists. "There is a plethora of new young talent in our country because one of the characteristics of
the Revolution is to have promoted a whole new generation of young people and cadres."

In a country where analysts watch closely for any revealing sign within the closed political hierarchy, many attached significance to Perez' appearance in front of the
masses at a time when, for all the world knew during those long seven minutes, Castro might have been dying from a heart attack.

A detail observers particularly fixed on was that Perez and Lage consulted on stage before they decided the former would take the microphone. Then, at the end of
his brief speech, and presumably not knowing what was going on in the ambulance behind him, Perez led the crowd in a cry of "Long live Raul!" before the usual
"Long live Fidel!"

Whatever significance that may or may not hold, what does seem clear is that the image of Castro suffering on stage in the line of public duty has struck a nerve for
many Cubans. As well as shocking them into thinking about the future, it also seems to have produced a relative wave of sympathy, even from those who are eager to
see political and economic reforms.

"We have to thank Saturday's suffocating heat for giving us the opportunity to demonstrate how much we care for Fidel," the Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) daily
proclaimed the next day in a comment that seemed deeper than just the usual propaganda.

Despite that, there were a few unconfirmed whispers around Havana of some people cheering in premature celebration when they saw Castro's collapse. And many
Cubans say, in an apparent paradox, that while they will feel emotional at Castro's departure, they will also welcome the start of a new era.

Abroad, Castro's foes, principally among the fiercely anti-Communist Cuban-American community, seized on the incident as a sign the end of their long wait may be
nigh. "Bad health for Fidel Castro is good news for freedom lovers everywhere," U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said.

Most of the rumors over Castro's health in recent times -- including unconfirmed reports that he may have cancer, brain disease, Parkinson's and a host of other
life-threatening ailments—have come from Florida.

With a veil of secrecy over details of his health here, it is impossible to know how he is beyond a general impression. While he has sometimes lost his place or looked
tired during lengthy speeches, Castro had generally seemed in good health of late, and many have noted that plenty of younger participants fainted in the heat of the
June 23 rally before he did.

Back on the five-mile sweep down the decaying but still picturesque Malecon, an early morning road-sweeper, Luis, picked up a tatty Cuban flag left over from a
recent protest rally opposite the U.S. diplomatic mission.

"Look, I'm in my 60s, I've worked all my life, I love my country, don't misunderstand me," he said. "But we've tried to stop the clock here in Cuba and the world has
gone marching on without us. Change is inevitable. Let's just hope it's quiet and peaceful, not violent, for God's sake."