- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Cubans have no idea whether dictator Fidel Castro is lying at death’s door or sitting up and watching reruns of “Jeopardy.”

The health of the country’s leader is a state secret. Even President Bush yesterday said he had no idea what the prognosis is for the ailing Mr. Castro.

The situation is reminiscent of the secrecy surrounding the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. The only clue for Russians that the iron-fisted Soviet dictator had died was when radio stations started playing gloomy music and bells tolled.

“There is a certain parallel between the Kremlin and Cuba,” said award-winning Stalin biographer Robert Conquest.

After handing over power to his younger brother, Raul, Fidel Castro has disappeared from the radar, leaving both the people of the communist island and Cuban exiles in the United States to wonder what has become of the man who has ruled Cuba for more than four decades.

“Nobody knows anything,” said Tamara Lush, a Miami-based staff writer for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. “I was just at a meeting with a Cuban-American group, and every five minutes somebody’s cell would ring. ‘Do you know anything?’ They want to pop the cork on the champagne.”

Cuba’s state-run press is not saying much. First, the 79-year-old Mr. Castro was said to have an intestinal ailment, brought on by stress. After surgery, said to be “complicated” and “important,” there was radio silence. Where and when the surgery took place was not known, nor the name of the doctor. Mr. Castro is said to be recovering in an undisclosed location.

“Especially with authoritarian leaders, there is great effort to conceal any illness,” said Jerrold Post, a George Washington University professor who has written extensively on totalitarianism.

Such secrecy was commonplace in the Soviet Union, said Mr. Conquest, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Before [Mikhail] Gorbachev, when [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev fell ill, they kept it a secret.”

In fragile political systems such as Russia and Cuba, Mr. Conquest added, “You’ve got a machine. When one of the plugs is pulled out, it doesn’t work the same way.”

When news that Mr. Castro had undergone surgery reached Miami last week, Cuban refugees immediately flooded the streets of Little Havana, with car horns beeping, weeping and waving Cuban flags.

But expectations of the dictator’s demise may be premature. “They’re always trying to kill me off,” Mr. Castro has often joked.

“The celebrating has turned into reality,” said Miss Lush. “Everybody’s on edge here. Nobody’s seen Raul, either.”

She was told to look for troop movements as a signal of a shifting political landscape. “There have been troop movements. That may signal the military getting ready,” Miss Lush said.

The official explanation from Havana was that Cuba’s military was gearing up to prevent a U.S. invasion. But the man who would order such an invasion says he’s in the dark, too.

On vacation in Crawford, Texas, Mr. Bush had plenty to say yesterday about the situation in Lebanon, but when a reporter asked about Mr. Castro, the president professed to be as mystified as any other American.

“First of all, Cuba is not a very transparent society, so the only thing I know is what has been speculated, and that is that on the one hand, he’s very ill; and on the other hand, he’s going to be coming out of a hospital,” Mr. Bush said during a press conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

In Cuba last week, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon said Mr. Castro was “very alive.”

Raul Castro, 75, assumed power, but he has yet to address the nation. White House press secretary Tony Snow said he didn’t have any information because Cuba is a “closed society.”

Concealing the state of a president’s deteriorating health is nothing new. Francois Mitterrand, president of France, hid the fact that he had cancer for 14 years before his death in January 1996 at age 79. When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat fell ill last year, there was speculation that he suffered from AIDS or was poisoned, but no information was given and his wife refused an autopsy.

And then there was Spain’s Francisco Franco. The Spanish leader lingered on life support for so long under a cloud of secrecy that when he was officially pronounced dead in 1975, it was old news, inspiring a running joke on TV’s “Saturday Night Live” with Chevy Chase announcing, “This breaking news just in: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower was president when Mr. Castro seized power in Cuba’s 1959 revolution. Mr. Castro has remained in power through nine succeeding U.S. administrations, surviving assassination attempts and other health crises over the years. But this time, as he nears the age of 80, no news may be bad news.

Reports of the dictator’s illness sparked a capitalist frenzy on EBay, where one entrepreneur last week offered a new domain name for sale. The starting bid was $1,900 for www.adiosfidel.com.

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