Castro makes fun of 'death rehearsal' after fainting

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The Independent US

The rumour mill on both sides of the Florida Straits went into overdrive after the Cuban President, Fidel Castro, swooned at the podium and was hustled off stage on Saturday during a marathon speech broadcast nationally.

How much longer can the greying revolutionary govern his Communist island? Who is next in line if what Miami exiles call the "biological solution to the Cuba problem" transpires and Fidel Castro dies? The sudden lurch, faltering voice and buckling knees were the first signs of physical weakness glimpsed since Mr Castro, 74, took power in 1959.

After a couple of whiffs of oxygen in the back of an ambulance and a moment to assess his own pulse rate, Mr Castro clambered back on stage and reassured the crowd of 70,000: "I'm in one piece." Within hours, the Comandante's face was beaming live from an indoor television studio, where he was determined to finish the speech interrupted by a bout of heat exhaustion. At his side was his younger brother, Raul, 70, his Defence Minister and number two in the Communist Party.

Long thought of as Mr Castro's successor, Raul rarely appears with his brother for security reasons. The two were grinning in solidarity. "It was a death rehearsal – you could say I was pretending to be dead to see what my burial would look like," the President joked.

The elusive Raul Castro has recently been depicted on propaganda billboards surrounded by a cluster of smiling children rather than the usual phalanx of generals "We, of course, want Fidel to live many more years. But eternity is not possible,'' Raul Castro told a Cuban youth newspaper last month. "We will undergo our own transition."

The government media pointed to the leader's gruelling workload as the cause of his "brief indisposition".

That the Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, was pushed forward to assume the empty spotlight on Saturday was thought important. Mr Perez Roque has also been suggested as a possible successor to Mr Castro, as has the well-spoken head of the National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon. Another long-time adviser, the economic guru Carlos Lage, is another tipped as a potential replacement. Mr Lageis Cuba's closest approximation to a free marketeer.

By allowing the media to show weakness in Mr Castro, who has been portrayed as preternaturally robust since he gave up smoking in 1985, the government may be preparing Cubans for the inevitable post-Castro transition.