Se­crecy shrouded de­tails of Fidel Cas­tro’s health

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Paul Han­d­ley

Cuban leader Fidel Cas­tro would al­ways laugh off spec­u­la­tion about his health. With an ath­letic build, and phys­i­cal stamina that lasted deep into his 70s, it seemed he would con­tinue to rule for many more years. Cas­tro’s own physi­cian, a spe­cial­ist in longevity, even sug­gested in 2004 that the leader could live to 140. “I am not ex­ag­ger­at­ing,” Dr Eu­ge­nio Sel­man said.

So Cubans were stunned when their ag­ing, yet seem­ingly in­de­fati­ga­ble leader an­nounced he had un­der­gone emer­gency in­testi­nal surgery and tem­po­rar­ily re­lin­quished pres­i­den­tial pow­ers on July 31, 2006, 13 days be­fore his 80th birth­day. He van­ished from sight for four years, with videos and pho­to­graphs of him be­ing re­leased only spo­rad­i­cally. Even his good friend and ally, Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez, said in early 2009 that he doubted Cas­tro would ever re­turn to the pub­lic stage.

But Chavez was wrong. In July 2010, Cas­tro sur­prised ev­ery­one when he was pho­tographed meet­ing with sci­en­tists at a Ha­vana in­sti­tute, then gave an in­ter­view on state tele­vi­sion. Soon he seemed to be pop­ping up ev­ery­where, meet­ing with econ­o­mists, vet­er­ans and even vis­it­ing the aquar­ium. He used the pub­lic­ity to warn the world of what he de­scribed as the threat of a nu­clear war pit­ting the United States and Is­rael against Iran.

Looked frail, men­tally sharp

The rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader looked frail but men­tally sharp, and he seemed to gain strength with each ap­pear­ance. By Septem­ber, Cas­tro was strong enough to give two out­door speeches un­der Ha­vana’s blaz­ing sun: the first on the steps of Ha­vana Uni­ver­sity, and the sec­ond in front of the cap­i­tal’s for­mer pres­i­den­tial palace.

That sec­ond speech went on for more than an hour and was at­tended by tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, and Cas­tro felt com­fort­able enough to poke fun at his long­faded rep­u­ta­tion for or­a­tor­i­cal en­durance. “We haven’t even been here two hours,” he grinned in con­clu­sion. “But I’m leav­ing now. It’s get­ting hot.”

Cas­tro’s reemer­gence proved short-lived. By 2011 he was seen less and less of­ten. At a brief ap­pear­ance at a key Com­mu­nist Party Congress in April 2011, Cas­tro for­mally re­signed as party leader and he ap­peared un­steady as he was led to his seat by a young aide. He had apol­o­gized in an ar­ti­cle days ear­lier for not hav­ing at­tended a march mark­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of Cuba’s vic­tory at the Bay of Pigs in­va­sion. “Be­lieve me that I felt pain when I saw that some of you were look­ing for me on the dais,” Cas­tro wrote. “I thought ev­ery­one un­der­stood that I can no longer do what I have done so many times be­fore.”

Af­ter his res­ig­na­tion, the length of time be­tween Fidel’s ap­pear­ances grew and he ap­peared older and weaker each time. Af­ter a Jan 8, 2014 ap­pear­ance at a Ha­vana art ex­hibit, he did not ap­pear in pub­lic for at least a year. Pho­tos of Cas­tro with world lead­ers ap­peared only a hand­ful of times in 2014.

Cuba’s govern­ment has never said of­fi­cially what Cas­tro was suf­fer­ing from when he fell ill, even when he an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary 2008 that he was re­sign­ing for health rea­sons. But it was widely re­ported to have been com­pli­ca­tions in­volv­ing di­ver­ti­c­uli­tis, an in­testi­nal ail­ment com­mon in older peo­ple. Cas­tro gave a few de­tails of just how sick he was in an Aug 2010 in­ter­view with the Mex­i­can news­pa­per La Jor­nada, say­ing his weight fell to 66 kg. That’s ex­tremely thin for a man known for his large frame. “I was at death’s door, but I came back,” Cas­tro told the pa­per.

In the in­ter­view, Cas­tro de­scribed ly­ing in a hospi­tal room dur­ing the ill­ness, hooked up to ma­chines, and won­der­ing how long it would be be­fore his suf­fer­ing would be over. “Laid out in that bed, I could only see what was around me, ma­chines I did not un­der­stand,” Cas­tro said. “I didn’t know how long this tor­ment would con­tinue. The only thing I could hope for was that the world would stop.”“But I re­cov­ered,” he added, proudly. Months af­ter fall­ing ill, Cas­tro ac­knowl­edged he un­der­went nu­mer­ous surg­eries for his con­di­tion and at least one had gone badly, al­most killing him. Cubans first had to face up to their pres­i­dent’s ad­vanc­ing age when, on June 23, 2001, he fainted briefly while giv­ing a speech in the sear­ing sun. — AP

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