Castro 'too unwell' to meet birthday admirers

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The ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro was too unwell to meet hundreds of admirers in Havana for his delayed 80th birthday celebrations today.

In a message read to Latin American artists at the launch of his five-day birthday bash, Castro said his doctors told him he was not fit enough to meet such a large crowd at the Karl Marx Theatre.

Castro's message did not rule out an appearance later in the week, but made it seem much less likely. He has been seen by the public only in photos and videos since his 31 July 31 that he was temporarily ceding power to his brother, 75-year-old defence minister Raul Castro, while he recovered from surgery for intestinal bleeding.

"I direct myself to you, intellectuals and prestigious personalities of the world, with a dilemma," said the note read at the gathering and broadcast live on state television.

"I could not meet with you in a small locale, only in the Karl Marx Theatre where all the visitors would fit, and I was not yet in condition, according to the doctors, to face such a colossal encounter."

With or without Castro, more than 1,300 politicians, artists and intellectuals from around the globe are determined to honour the man who governed the Communist-run island for 47 years before stepping aside four months ago after intestinal surgery.

"My very close friends, who have done me the honour of visiting our country, I sign off with the great pain of not having been able to personally give thanks and hugs to each and every one of you," Castro's announcement said.

The crowd responded with a massive standing ovation.

Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rene Preval of Haiti have confirmed their attendance, along with former Ecuadorean president Rodrigo Borja and Nicaraguan president-elect Daniel Ortega.

Also expected are Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, South African singer Miriam Makeba and Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine human rights campaigner, is also expected.

Brazilian poet Thiago de Mello, Ecuadorean writer Jorge Enrique Adoum and Nicaraguan politician Tomas Borge arrived over the weekend. Castro's good friend and political ally Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez will not be able to come; he is up for re-election on December 3. But Chavez has promised to dedicate his electoral victory to Castro.

Details of Castro's ailment and his medical treatment are state secrets.

Despite periodic statements by Cuban officials that Castro is recovering, US officials say they are convinced he suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and will not live through 2007.

The birthday celebrations are sponsored by the foundation of the late Ecuadorean painter Oswaldo Guayasamin and began with the gala cultural gathering at the theatre. Guayasamin, who died in 1999, painted four portraits of Castro over the years and joined him once every decade to celebrate his birthday.

The new San Geronimo College, focusing on historical renovation, archaeology and related disciplines, was dedicated in Old Havana in honour of Castro's 80th birthday. Other activities include a three-day academic conference starting today, a concert with Cuban and other Latin American artists on Friday night, and an art exhibition.