- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

12:48 p.m.

HAVANA — Fidel Castro, who has wielded absolute power in Cuba for nearly half a century, remained out of sight today after undergoing intestinal surgery and temporarily turning over power to his brother Raul.

The surprise announcement that Mr. Castro had been operated on to repair a “sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding” stunned Cubans on the island and in exile and marked the first time that Mr. Castro, two weeks away from his 80th birthday, had relinquished power in 47 years of rule.

On this island 90 miles south of Florida, people early today went about their business as normal on the streets of Havana, standing in line for buses to school and work and jogging along the city’s famous Malecon sea wall.

Related article: Speculation in Little Havana on Castro

Some government work centers later called workers to participate in outdoor political gatherings to express their support for Fidel Castro.

It was unknown when or where the surgery took place or where Mr. Castro was recovering.

The news came last night in a statement read on state television by his secretary, Carlos Valenciaga. The message said Mr. Castro’s condition apparently was caused by stress from a heavy work schedule during recent trips to Argentina and eastern Cuba. He did not appear on the broadcast.

Mr. Castro, who took control of Cuba in 1959, resisted repeated U.S. attempts to oust him and survived communism’s demise elsewhere, also said in the statement that he was temporarily handing over leadership of the Communist Party to his younger brother.

Raul Castro, the defense minister, who turned 75 in June, also did not appear on television and made no statement on his own. For decades the constitutional successor to his brother, Raul Castro has assumed a more public profile in recent weeks.

Fidel Castro last appeared in public on Wednesday as he marked the 53rd anniversary of his July 26, 1953, barracks assault that launched the revolution. The Cuban leader seemed thinner than usual and somewhat weary during a pair of long speeches in eastern Cuba.

White House spokesman Peter Watkins said U.S. authorities were monitoring the situation. “We can’t speculate on Castro’s health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba’s freedom,” he said.

With Havana’s streets calm, an electronic news ticker at the U.S. diplomatic mission provided the only clue that something dramatic had occurred inside Cuba’s government: “All Cubans, including those under the dictatorship, can count on our help and support. We respect the wishes of all Cubans.”

Waiters at a popular cafe in Old Havana were stunned momentarily by the news but quickly returned to work.

“He’ll get better, without a doubt,” said Agustin Lopez, 40. “There are really good doctors here, and he’s extremely strong.”

However, Martha Beatriz Roque, a leading Cuban government opponent in Havana, said she believed Mr. Castro must be gravely ill to have stepped aside — even temporarily.

“No one knows if he’ll even be alive Dec. 2, when he’s supposed to celebrate his birthday,” she said.

Across the Florida Straits in Miami, exiles waved Cuban flags on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, shouting “Cuba, Cuba, Cuba” as drivers honked their horns. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled Mr. Castro’s rule over nearly five decades, many of them settling in Miami.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Mr. Castro’s strongest international ally, expressed distress during a visit to Vietnam. He said he had called the Cuban leader’s office after hearing the news.

“We wish President Fidel Castro will recover rapidly. Viva Fidel Castro,” he said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao also sent a message of good wishes to Mr. Castro, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

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