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Castro Steps Aside -- for Now

Times Staff Writer

Cuban President Fidel Castro handed power to his brother Raul late Monday ahead of undergoing surgery, the first time he had relinquished control since the victory of the leftist revolution he led nearly 48 years ago.

In a letter read on state television by his personal secretary, Carlos Valenciaga, Castro said he had suffered intestinal bleeding brought on by the stress of recent travel. He visited Argentina last week for a regional summit and traveled to Cuba’s southern coast for the July 26 holiday that celebrates the birth of his revolution.

Castro, who will turn 80 on Aug. 13, is reported to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, although it has never been confirmed, and has looked frail in recent years during his rare forays abroad. The government released no immediate report on the results of the operation and said only that Castro was expected to be hospitalized and recovering for several weeks.

The announcement that Raul Castro, 75, would assume the leadership during the president’s surgery and recovery underscored recent signals that Cuban officials have been contemplating how the country will be ruled after the charismatic strongman dies.

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Castro’s letter said his brother would assume his duties as president, commander in chief of the armed forces and head of the Communist Party. It also suggested that celebrations planned for his 80th birthday, including concerts and toasts by leading leftists from around the world, should be postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of the Cuban armed forces.

In Washington, where opposition to Castro has been a political given for two generations, White House spokesman Peter Watkins said, “We can’t speculate on his health at this time.” But, he added, “we continue to work for the day of Cuba’s freedom.”

Reaction was less restrained in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, which has long been the center of anti-Castro political activism.

Cuban Americans flocked into Calle Ocho, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. Motorists shouted, “Cuba libre!” and waved Cuban flags from sunroofs. Others beat pots and pans, flashed peace signs and took pictures with cellular phones.

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“I’m praying to God to give us a miracle and let that man die,” said Gabriela Burmudez, 64, as she stood in the middle of the street waving a huge Cuban flag.

Castro’s death has long been a near obsession in some Miami exile circles. By contrast, in Cuba, the topic has long been taboo. The reticence began to lift when Castro fainted during a long speech in June 2001. Another glimpse of his mortality came when he fell and broke his arm and kneecap after a speech in October 2004.

Castro disparaged a CIA report last year that said he suffered from Parkinson’s, saying Washington had “tried to kill me off so many times” and insisting that he had never felt better.

But Castro alluded to his mortality in an interview several months ago with a French journalist in which he acknowledged that his brother was also getting on in years and that leadership eventually would probably pass to younger Communist Party cadres.

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Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who is in his 40s and is among the most hard-line of the younger members of the leadership, and Vice President Carlos Lage Davila, in his early 50s, are often mentioned as potential successors once a transition leadership shepherds Cuba into a post-Fidel era.

Castro has kept himself relatively fit. He appears often on state TV to criticize the U.S. and rally his countrymen to the cause of solidarity amid economic hardships and what he portrays as imminent U.S. plans to invade and subjugate the island. But he has lately appeared fatigued and kept his travels abroad to a minimum.

During his trip last week to take part in the Mercosur trade bloc summit in Cordoba, Argentina, he basked in the admiration of other leftist leaders gathered to denounce U.S. trade policies. He took bows with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been offering like-minded Latin American leaders cheap oil to lift their economies.

But Castro became agitated during the Cordoba meeting, according to sources at the summit, when Argentine President Nestor Kirchner sought privately to resolve a years-old visa standoff that has prevented a Cuban doctor from visiting her son and grandchildren in Argentina.

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Castro’s propensity toward micromanagement and stubborn control over all political decisions has led to an atmosphere of suspended animation in Cuba. Those who back more liberal rules on travel, self-employment and private enterprise have simply been waiting -- with diminishing patience -- for Castro to depart the political stage.

Castro was forced to allow some private enterprise, including in-home restaurants and tourist accommodations, in the lean years of the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union removed one of the country’s main sources of money. But as a revolutionary fiercely opposed to income differentiation, Castro has lately sought to close private businesses and tax services that have allowed some Cubans to amass individual wealth.

Raul Castro is viewed as being willing to back at least modest economic reforms. He has been openly admiring of the Chinese model under which a strong ruling party remains in control of the political system while permitting economic reforms.

Under the Cuban Constitution, the younger Castro is the country’s designated No. 2. When he turned 75 on June 3, the state-run media greeted the day with great fanfare, describing the defense minister as the country’s best guarantee that the gains of the revolution will outlive Fidel Castro.

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In contrast with his charismatic and dominating brother, Raul Castro has long avoided the spotlight. Nonetheless, he has been a central figure in the revolution. As defense minister, he built up the armed forces and defeated a series of efforts to reverse the revolution, starting with the botched CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The military is considered the strongest and most stable part of the Cuban political structure.

Raul Castro negotiated the Cuban alliance with the Soviet Union that was key to keeping the government in power from the earliest days of the revolution until the Soviet collapse.

Fidel Castro and his guerrilla band launched their revolution with an assault on Cuba’s Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953. That initial campaign left dozens of revolutionaries dead and sent the Castro brothers and other survivors to prison and exile.

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But the Castros returned three years later, accompanied by Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara and 80 others, and mounted a guerrilla operation from the Sierra Maestra. On New Year’s Day 1959, they succeeded in ousting the forces of President Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s long-ruling dictator.

The United States recognized Castro’s government, and the revolution in its early phase opened thousands of new schools, eradicated illiteracy and enacted universal public healthcare.

But as Castro’s government allied itself with leftist revolutionary causes around the world, the Eisenhower administration imposed an economic embargo and began the efforts to bring down the regime that have marked U.S. policy ever since.

Castro has outlasted nine U.S. presidents. He stands as the world’s longest-serving head of government.

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The South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A revolutionary -- and a fixture

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Name: Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz.

Title: President of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, Commander in Chief of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces. World’s longest-ruling head of government and leader of one of the globe’s last communist states.

Birth date: Officially Aug. 13, 1926, in what was then Oriente province, although some say he was born in 1927.

Education: Attended Roman Catholic schools and the University of Havana, where he received law and social science degrees.

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The revolution: Castro launched his fight with a July 26, 1953, attack on a barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. He was arrested and freed under an amnesty. He traveled to Mexico to form a rebel army, and returned with his followers aboard a small yacht. Most were killed or captured, but Castro and a small group escaped and established a stronghold in the mountains. They seized power when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled New Year’s Day 1959.

Ruler: Castro emerged as head of the new government and quickly gained nearly absolute power. The United States cut all trade with Cuba as the island allied with the Soviet Union, leading to the October 1962 missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. For three decades, Cuba was a Soviet ally and remained alienated from the United States after communism collapsed in the Soviet bloc.

Family: Married Mirta Diaz-Balart in 1948, and their son, Fidel Felix Castro Diaz-Balart, was born in 1949. The couple divorced in 1955. Although Castro never confirmed it, he reportedly wed Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he has five sons. He reportedly had several children with other women.

Source: Associated Press

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