Castro in 'battle for life' as he turns 80

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The Independent US

The ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro will turn 80 tomorrow with questions remaining over his health and whether he will recover sufficiently to resume his duties as head of state.

When it was revealed last week that President Castro had undergone intestinal surgery and ceded temporary control of Cuba to his brother, Raul, it was also announced that his birthday celebrations had been postponed until 2 December, the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces.

Yet although President Castro's "proclamation to the people" was read aloud on state television and carried in the official newspaper, there has been no public appearance of himself or his brother since late July, adding to speculation as to his health.

His friend and ally, Hugo Chavez, said this week that Mr Castro was in a "great battle for life" but that he believed he would recover. The Venezuelan leader said he had received a message from Mr Castro which "filled me with more optimism, with more faith". In a televised speech, he added: "Among other things Fidel told me ... 'I keep saying Chavez, God help Chavez and his friends'." Mr Chavez said he had sent a handwritten letter to Castro, telling him: "You are fighting a great battle every day, all these nights."

Venezuela has provided Cuba with subsidised oil while President Castro in turn has sent more than 13,000 doctors to help Mr Chavez's Barrio Adentro health programme.

In a separate development, a US court has delivered a setback to campaigners seeking to free five Cubans convicted of being spies. The so-called Miami Five were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 after being accused of spying inside the US. Their supporters say the men had been dispatched from Cuba to monitor the actions of Miami-based anti-Castro activists, allegedly responsible for terror attacks in Cuba. Last year, a three-judge panel ordered a new trial outside of Miami because of what they described as a "perfect storm" of publicity and strong anti-Castro community views. But the full appeal court was asked to reconsider the decision by the US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, and on Thursday, the court ruled there were no grounds for a retrial. "The news materials submitted by the defendants fall far short of the volume, saturation and invidiousness of news coverage sufficient to presume prejudice," the court ruled.

Gloria LaRiva, of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, said: "We believe very clearly that we must redouble, triple our efforts ... These are people who were fighting terrorism and saving lives."