Sunday, November 12, 2006


The U.S. government thinks Fidel Castro’s health is deteriorating and that the Cuban dictator is unlikely to live through next year.

That dire view was reinforced last week when Cuba’s foreign minister backed away from his prediction that the ailing Mr. Castro would return to power by early December. “It’s a subject on which I don’t want to speculate,” Felipe Perez Roque told the Associated Press in Havana.

U.S. government officials say there is still some mystery about Mr. Castro’s diagnosis, his treatment and how he is responding. But these officials think that the 80-year-old has terminal cancer of the stomach, colon or pancreas.

He was seen weakened and thinner in official state photos released late last month, and it is considered unlikely that he will return to power or survive through the end of 2007, said the U.S. government and defense officials. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the politically sensitive topic.

With chemotherapy, Mr. Castro may live up to 18 months, the defense official said. Without that treatment, expected survival would drop to three months to eight months.

American officials will not talk publicly about how they glean clues to the communist leader’s health, but U.S. spy agencies include physicians who study pictures, video, public statements and other information coming out of Cuba.

The CIA’s Office of Medical Services, for example, studies hair and other biological samples for hints about world leaders’ health and how that could affect their official duties.

Images and video of a weakened Mr. Castro released in late October showed a slight frame and shaky movements. They contradicted the athletic image he sought to portray in his red, white and blue Cuban Olympic team warm-up suit, emblazoned with “F. Castro” on the chest.

Some images showed a dark lesion on his neck, and a baggy nylon jacket could be hiding a colostomy bag. But the photos also made clear that he has not lost his hair or beard to chemotherapy.

Mr. Castro has ruled Cuba for 47 years. The dictator temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raul, at the end of July just before the government announced that the president was undergoing intestinal surgery.

A planned celebration of Mr. Castro’s 80th birthday next month is expected to draw international attention. The Cuban leader had planned to attend the public event, which already had been postponed once from his Aug. 13 birthday.

Mr. Perez Roque, the foreign minister, said last week that Mr. Castro was recovering steadily from his intestinal surgery. “We are optimistic,” he said.

But the minister also said there was no guarantee Mr. Castro would be well enough to attend the birthday celebration.

Questions abound about what comes after the Castro regime.

Cuba has a faltering economy. The CIA reports that the average Cuban’s standard of living remains lower than before an economic downturn of the 1990s, caused by the loss of $4 billion to $6 billion each year in Soviet aid and domestic inefficiencies. Cuba relies heavily on foreign support, including about $2 billion per year from Venezuela.

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