Cancer-ridden Castro may not live to see in new year

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The Independent US

The ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro is battling terminal cancer and could be dead by Christmas, senior Western diplomatic sources have said. Observers close to the Cuban regime have reported that the leader is suffering from an aggressive form of stomach cancer and has refused radiation therapy or any other form of treatment.

Cuban officials are notoriously tight-lipped over the health of their President which they treat as a closely guarded state secret. While occasionally they have broken their silence to report that Mr Castro is suffering from a non life-threatening illness, these claims have been roundly discounted by Western sources.

Mr Castro's death, when it comes, is expected to have repercussions far beyond the shores of Cuba. On the one hand there are fears of an exodus of Cubans towards the US.

Equally, concerns have been raised that hardline anti-Castro groups in south Florida will stage their own attempt to destabilise the regime by sending a flotilla of ships to the island in expectation that Cubans will be prepared to rise up against the government - a scenario with potentially disastrous consequences.

Either way, political developments in Cuba have the potential to influence domestic politics in the US. When, in 2000, the then president Bill Clinton allowed the child Elian Gonzalez to be sent back to his homeland, the Cuban vote turned solidly Republican - and many blame the controversy for Al Gore's subsequent loss of the presidential election that year. Now, as the 2008 presidential campaign grinds into action, Cuba will again become an increasingly sensitive topic in America, especially as speculation surrounding Mr Castro's health mounts.

Cubans themselves are used to being told very little about the inner workings of their government on security grounds, but dissidents say uncertainty over the country's political future has fuelled impatience with the secrecy surrounding his health. While posters proclaiming "80 more years" of Castro's leadership are still hanging all over the capital, Havana, and the country decked the halls on Saturday for his birthday celebrations - for which he was himself absent - many Cubans doubt their leader will ever govern again.

Despite repeated assurances by the authorities - the most recent came last week as Vice-President Carlos Lage Davila spoke at the end of a conference on Mr Castro's place in history - that Mr Castro will return to lead Cuba for years to come, more and more people suspect he is close to death, even though they have been told little about his condition other than that he underwent emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding in July and is now recovering. "It's strange they have not said anything about Fidel," Orlando, a telephone company worker and government backer, told Reuters. "They must have their reasons, but I'm worried. It has been a long time since we heard about him."

Even at his 80th birthday celebrations, held with much fanfare over the weekend, Mr Castro did not get a mention other than a cursory "Viva Fidel" at the end of a speech by his brother, designated successor and acting President, Raul Castro. "People are convinced he has cancer," said Joel, a social worker. "We all expected to see him at the parade, and nobody said a word."

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