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Castro temporarily hands power to brother
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Castro temporarily hands power to brother


HAVANA, Aug 1, 2006 (UNI) - Cuban President Fidel Castro, Latin America’s sole surviving Communist strongman, ceded power late Monday to his brother Raul on a temporary basis for the first time in 47 years, after undergoing what he called delicate intestinal surgery.

The aging but still-fiery leftist leader, who turns 80 on August 13, said in a statement read on Cuban television that he would be out for ‘‘some weeks’’ following the operation to stem intestinal bleeding.

The seriousness of Castro’s condition was not immediately clear but news he had relinquished power sparked hopeful celebrations among Cuban exiles in Miami who had been waiting decades for his demise.

The White House, where a succession of US presidents had plotted Castro’s downfall, stayed low key but watchful.

‘‘We are monitoring the situation. We don’t want to speculate on his health,’’ Peter Watkins, a White House spokesman, told AFP. ‘‘We will continue to work for the day of Cuba’s freedom.’’

Thousands of people celebrated in Miami’s Little Havana, convinced of Castro’s imminent demise.

The crowd banged pots and pans, honked car horns, waved Cuban flags and chanted ‘‘Viva Cuba Libre’’ -- ‘‘Long Live Free Cuba.’’ Some tried to contact friends and relatives in Cuba by cellphone.

In Havana, Cuban dissident Marta Beatriz Roque said Castro’s announcement ‘‘took us by surprise’’.

‘‘This needs to be followed very closely,’’ she told Univision, a Spanish-language US broadcaster.

Castro has been a major world figure since his band of bearded guerrillas seized power from dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. His rule has been marked by momentous events such as the Cuban missile crisis and the failed US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960s.

His 75-year-old brother and defense minister, Raul Castro, was temporarily handed the reins of the communist regime, Castro announced in a statement read by his personal secretary on Cuban television. Raul Castro is already Castro’s designated successor.

Castro blamed his ailment on the intense agenda of recent trips to Argentina and eastern Cuba.

‘‘Working day and night and barely sleeping has taken its toll on my health, which has withstood everything, has undergone extreme stress and has become brittle,’’ he said in a statement read by his personal secretary Carlos Valenciaga.

‘‘That touched off an acute intestinal distress with sustained bleeding, which forced me to undergo delicate surgery,’’ he said.

The operations will ‘‘force me to forgo my responsibilities and duties for a few weeks’’.

He said Raul Castro would take over as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, commander in chief and president of the government.

Castro also asked that his birthday celebration be postponed to December 2, the 50th anniversary of his landing in southeastern Cuba and the start of his armed campaign in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

Raul Castro recently hinted that a collective government might succeed Castro. In a speech in June before Cuba’s top brass, Raul Castro said that ‘‘only the Communist Party ... can be the true inheritor of the trust our people have placed in their leader’’.

Castro recently attended a Mercosur summit in Cordoba, Argentina, where he appeared in an olive green military uniform.

He also spent three days traveling in the eastern part of Cuba, the provinces of Bayamo and Holguin, to preside over the celebration of the 53rd anniversary of the failed assault on the Moncada Quarters, which marked the start of the revolution.

Castro had joked last week that he did not plan to be leading Cuba if and when he hits the 100-year mark.

Speculation about Castro’s health peaked after a fall in 2004, when he injured his right arm and left knee. Last November, the Cuban leader, who stopped smoking cigars in 1985 and now exercises every day, said he had recovered from these injuries.

Earlier this month, National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon told AFP Castro ‘‘has been given this privilege: He is an extraordinarily healthy man. He has always been and remains healthy, although that angers (US President) George W. Bush.’’

Castro was to assume the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at its meeting in Havana in September.

In his statement, Castro seemed to hint at a long recovery when he said the NAM meeting should ‘‘get top attention from the government and the Cuban nation’’.

While his brother assumes the presidency, Castro said he delegated other responsibilities to other officials.

He handed Vice President Carlos Lage responsibility for Cuba’s energy matters. Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer will take over national and international health programs. Politburo members Jose Ramon Machado and Esteban Lazo will handle education.


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