Speculation over the health of Cuba's President, Fidel Castro, reached a new level of intensity yesterday after a report in a Spanish newspaper that he remained gravely ill following three failed operations last July to treat intestinal infections.
Citing sources at Madrid's Gregorio Marañon hospital, El Pais said that six months after Castro's first operation to stem severe intestinal bleeding triggered by diverticulitis, from which he had suffered for 20 years, his prognosis was "very grave".
The hospital's chief surgeon, Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido, examined the 80-year-old Cuban leader during a visit to Havana in December. But yesterday he denied he was the source of the story, warning that any information not released directly by Mr Castro's own medical team "is without foundation". A Cuban diplomat in Madrid dismissed the report as "a lie, an invented story".
Since Mr Castro handed control of Cuba to his brother, Raul, on 26 July, his illness has been treated as a state secret by the regime. El Pais is the first mainstream media outlet to offer a detailed description of what may have befallen him.
In the first operation, the paper said, surgeons removed the most affected part of the large intestine and the rectum. But the patient did not recover well, and the infection produced another bout of peritonitis. A second operation to clear the infected area followed, in which all the large intestine was removed and an artificial anus created. Another source told El Pais that the Cuban leader then suffered from inflammation of the bile duct, which has an 80 per cent mortality rate. An artificial bile duct made in South Korea was implanted. But it failed and had to be replaced by one made in Spain.
When Dr Sabrido visited in December, President Castro reportedly had a stomach wound that leaked more than half a litre of fluids a day causing "severe loss of nutrients". He had lost weight and was being fed intravenously.
The report sparked new rumours among the roughly one million Cuban-Americans in south Florida that Mr Castro might already have died. Officials in Cuba have not commented on the speculation.