The Miami Herald
June 24, 2001

Leader's health is well-kept secret


 There were reports that he quit cigars in 1985 because of lung cancer, rumors that he had a pacemaker put in four summers ago, and a senior Latin American politician who spent time with him three years ago swore there was a bladder bag beneath his revolutionary uniform.

 But officially, and even in the realm of behind-the-scenes confirmation, the health history of Fidel Castro is a Cuban state secret.

 In fact, Castro's near-collapse on Cuban-run television Saturday is unprecedented in its visibility across his 42-year history as commander of the Cuban Revolution.

 "His personal life and any kind of personal issues related to health and vigor are state secrets. The image of an invincible, vigorous revolutionary leader has always been one that he personally has projected. It's theater,'' said Georgetown University instructor Brian Latell, a retired Central Intelligence Agency analyst whose specialty was Cuba and Castro.

 Never before, according to Cuba watchers, has Havana even acknowledged that Castro skipped a day of work because of a flu or other health problems.


 And not once, they say, has official Cuban media mentioned any health problems.

 Now suddenly, "Here is the image of the invincible leader, who has never been ill, for the first time cracking. This is the screen that Castro has always hidden behind,'' Latell said.

 "Now this myth of his invincibility is going to be coming under greater and greater strain on the island. Once he is seen to have very serious infirmities, would-be
 successors are going to start jockeying for position.''

 Some Castro watchers, however, thought they saw signs of mental deterioration in a recent speech he delivered in Pinar del Río, excerpts of which were carried on
 Telemundo's Miami affiliate, Channel 51.

 In it, Castro fumbles with documents, thinks out loud to try to count -- and recount -- the number of Cuban provinces slated to get special government super-hospitals.

 Television even captured Castro expelling a wad of spittle -- an event that caused the Cuban American National Foundation, Castro's biggest U.S. foe, to dub the Cuban leader "the drooling dictator.''

 "His health is not good. He has been showing this in a whole series of public appearances in recent weeks,'' said Dennis Hays, CANF executive vice president and a former U.S. diplomat in Washington.

 Like Latell, he called Castro's health "one of the most closely guarded secrets in Cuba.''

 As a result, he said, information about his infirmity is the product of visual observations, speculations and, at times, rumors that roil the streets of Miami and Havana.

 "What we're left with is what we see,'' he said, "and what we see is he appears to be suffering from a series of ailments that make him less steady, less confident, less
 lucid than he was in years past.''

 What could it be?

 Through the years Cuban exile activists and Cuba watchers have offered arm-chair diagnoses without ever offering solid evidence or any sort of confirmation. Conditions included a stroke or colon cancer, Parkinson's disease or a prostate ailment, even arthritis.

 After the Channel 51 spot aired in Miami, some Cuban Americans said they spotted the slide toward senility they had seen in a grandparent.


 Castro turns 75 on Aug. 13. His father lived into his mid-80s, causing skepticism among Cuba observers when reports arose of deterioration.

 In July 1998, for example, Miami and Costa Rican newspapers were embarrassed after they reported that the Cuban leader had suffered from a brain disease and had been secretly treated in an exclusive Havana hospital.

 The report was based on interviews with Elizabeth Trujillo Izquierdo, who told reporters from San José, Costa Rica, that she was a Cuban doctor and with her husband had been involved in treating Castro.

 Havana quickly heaped scorn on the report, which turned out to be a hoax once Trujillo Izquierdo's record came under more intensive scrutiny.

 Other health reports have likewise never been elevated above the stage of rumor. In 1997, for example, many in Havana and Miami were repeating rumors that Castro had a pacemaker installed or suffered a slight stroke. But they never were confirmed.


 That same year, a CIA report released by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence characterized Castro as healthy.

 It quoted CIA Director George Tenet as telling the committee, "Fidel Castro appears healthy for a man of 70 and his political position seems secure. Unless he suffers a health crisis,'' it added, "he is likely to be in power a year from now.''

 A decade earlier, in January 1989, Time magazine's "Grapevine'' section reported that Castro gave up cigar smoking in 1985 because doctors discovered a small
 malignancy in a lung. Its source: "Soviet officials.'' Asked about that report in Washington, U.S. officials were unable to confirm it.

 But Latell said Saturday that in the past year "there's been more and more reason to surmise that he has some serious affliction, some possibly life-threatening affliction.''

 Why surmise it? Because while most people who have visited with the Cuban leader describe him as ``fine, vigorous, clear and articulate,'' he said, there have been "a smattering of reports'' that he has suffered from bouts of confusion or a loss of concentration.

                                    © 2001