Fidel Castro, who took control of Cuba in 1959, rebuffed repeated US attempts to oust him and survived communism’s demise almost everywhere else, temporarily relinquished his presidential powers to his brother Raul last night because of surgery.
Castro, less than two weeks away from his 80th birthday, did not appear on the live television broadcast in which his secretary read a letter from the Cuban leader. It was the first time in 47 years of absolute rule that Castro has relinquished power.
In the note read by secretary Carlos Valenciaga, Castro said he had suffered gastrointestinal bleeding, apparently due to stress from recent public appearances in Argentina and eastern Cuba.
“The operation obligates me to undertake several weeks of rest,” the letter read. “Extreme stress had provoked in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obligated me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure.”
Castro said he was temporarily relinquishing the presidency to his younger brother and successor Raul, the defence minister, but said the move was of “a provisional character”. There was no immediate appearance or statement by Raul Castro.
The calm delivery of the announcement appeared to signal that there would be an orderly succession to Raul should Fidel become permanently incapacitated.
The elder Castro asked that celebrations scheduled for his 80th birthday on August 13 be postponed until December 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Castro said he would also temporarily relinquish his duties as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba to Raul, who turned 75 in June and who has been taking on a more public profile in recent weeks.
In power since the triumph of the Cuban revolution on January 1, 1959, Castro has been the world’s longest-ruling head of government. Only Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, crowned in 1946, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, have been head of state longer.
The “maximum leader’s” ironclad rule has ensured Cuba remains among the world’s five remaining communist countries. The others are all in Asia: China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.
Streets in Havana, including the coastal Malecon highway where young people often congregate, were typically quiet late yesterday. In Old Havana, waiters at a popular café were momentarily stunned as they watched the news, but they quickly got back to work and put on brave faces.
“He’ll get better, without a doubt,” said Agustin Lopez, 40. “There are really good doctors here, and he’s extremely strong.”
In the nearby Plaza Vieja, Cuban musicians continued to play for customers - primarily foreign tourists – sitting at outdoor cafes. Signs on the plaza’s colonial buildings put up during a recent Cuban holiday said: “Live on Fidel, for 80 more.”
“We’re really sad, and pretty shocked,” said Ines Cesar, a retired 58-year-old metal worker who had gathered with neighbours to discuss the news. “But everyone’s relaxed too: I think he’ll be fine.”
When asked about how she felt having Raul Castro at the helm of the nation, Cesar paused and said one word: “Normal.”
A leading Cuban government opponent in Havana said she believed Castro must be gravely ill to have stepped aside temporarily.
“It’s almost the same as death,” Martha Beatriz Roque said in a telephone interview. “No one knows if he’ll even be alive on December 2 when he’s supposed to celebrate his birthday.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Peter Watkins said: “We are monitoring the situation. We can’t speculate on Castro’s health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba’s freedom.”
Across the Florida Straits in Miami, exiles waved Cuban flags on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, shouting “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!” and hoping that the end is near for the man most of them consider to be a ruthless dictator. There were hugs, cheers and dancing as drivers honked their horns.
Over nearly five decades, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled Castro’s rule, many of them settling in Miami.
Castro rose to power after an armed revolution he led drove out then-President Fulgencio Batista.
The US was the first country to recognise Castro, but his radical economic reforms and rapid trials of Batista supporters quickly unsettled US leaders.
Washington eventually slapped a trade embargo on the island and severed diplomatic ties. Castro seized American property and businesses and turned to the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance.
On April 16, 1961, Castro declared his revolution to be socialist. The following day, he humiliated the United States by capturing more than 1,100 exile soldiers in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The world neared nuclear conflict on October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. After a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev removed them.
Meanwhile, Cuban revolutionaries opened 10,000 new schools, erased illiteracy, and built a universal healthcare system. Castro backed revolutionary movements in Latin America and Africa.
But former liberties were whittled away as labour unions lost the right to strike, independent newspapers were shut down and religious institutions were harassed.
Castro continually resisted US demands for multi-party elections and an open economy despite American laws tightening the embargo in 1992 and 1996.
He characterised a US plan for American aid in a post-Castro era as a thinly disguised attempt at regime change and insisted his socialist system would survive long after his death.
Fidel Castro Ruz was born in eastern Cuba, where his Spanish immigrant father ran a prosperous plantation. His official birthday is August 13, 1926, although some say he was born a year later.
Talk of Castro’s mortality was long taboo on the island, but that ended on June 23, 2001, when he fainted during a speech in the sun. Although Castro quickly returned to the stage, many Cubans understood for the first time that their leader would one day die.
Castro shattered a kneecap and broke an arm when he fell after a speech on October 20, 2004, but typically laughed off rumours about his health, most recently a 2005 report that he had Parkinson’s disease.
“They have tried to kill me off so many times,” Castro said in a November 2005 speech about the Parkinson’s report, adding he felt “better than ever”.
But the Cuban president also said he would not insist on remaining in power if he ever became too sick to lead.
“I’ll call the (Communist) Party and tell them I don’t feel I’m in condition ... that please, someone take over the command.”