The Miami Herald
Fri, Nov. 18, 2005

Indignant Castro claims to feel 'better than ever'

In an hours-long speech at the University of Havana, Fidel Castro defiantly blasted President Bush, derided the CIA's belief that he has Parkinson's and likened himself to El Cid.


Fidel Castro said he would step down if he became too ill to govern but he insisted he feels ''better than ever,'' a day after The Herald reported that the CIA is convinced he suffers from Parkinson's disease.

In an hours-long speech broadcast live on Thursday night on Cuban state television to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his entering the University of Havana, the 79-year-old blasted President Bush and the CIA for the war in Iraq and the use of secret jails to house terror suspects.

''They've said Parkinson's; what do you think of that?'' Castro told the audience of students and academics. ``I don't care if I get Parkinson's. The pope had Parkinson's, and he spent a bunch of years running all around the world.''

Showing no visible signs of health problems and dressed in his fatigues, Castro said he would not insist on remaining in power if he ever became too sick to lead the country.

''If I don't feel I'm in condition, I'll call the [Communist] Party and tell them I don't feel I'm in condition . . . that please, someone take over the command,'' he said.

But Castro also indicated such a scenario was unlikely to occur soon, saying he exercises regularly ``and don't neglect myself in any way.''

He said those who report his death will be let down.

''Disappointment follows disappointment,'' said Castro, in a speech peppered by occasional slurring and stuttering.

The Herald reported Wednesday that Central Intelligence Agency analysts are so certain Castro has Parkinson's disease that the agency last year began briefing U.S. policy makers. Reports that he suffers from the nonfatal but debilitating illness have swirled for nearly a decade, but this was the first time the CIA was reported to be convinced they are true.

Two longtime government officials familiar with the briefings said the CIA believes Castro was diagnosed around 1998. Both asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Parkinson's symptoms include tremors, stiffness, difficulty with balance and muffled speech, although it varies according to the patient.

Castro fainted during a speech in a Havana suburb in 2001 and was seen almost collapsing during the inauguration of Argentine President Néstor Kirchner in 2003. He broke his knee and arm when he fell in public last year, and former Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutiérrez wrote in his recent book that he had to prop up a dozing Castro several times while sitting next to him at an international event.

The president of Cuba's national assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, was quoted in the Mexican paper El Sol de México, saying that he doesn't believe the reports came from the CIA.

Castro spoke for more than 4 ½ hours to his alma mater.

''I could be like El Cid Campeador,'' Castro said, referring to the medieval Spanish warrior. ``I would recommend that the [Communist] Party put me on a horse -- like Bush -- winning battles even after death.''