- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

MIAMI

Ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro’s ubiquitous track suit appears less baggy these days, and his once-sallow cheeks seem fuller and rosier signs, some say, that the communist leader may be ready to take back the country’s reins after nine months of interim leadership under brother Raul.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Mr. Castro, said this week that the 80-year-old leader, suffering from a mysterious gastrointestinal ailment, is “in charge” and preparing a re-emergence to public life today on May Day, an international workers’ day recognized especially in Latin America.

“Fidel is in charge. Fidel is in charge,” Mr. Chavez said in Venezuela during a meeting of leftist leaders from the region, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, with whom Mr. Castro has also forged close ties in recent years.

Last weekend, Mr. Morales was quoted in Bolivian news media saying he was certain Mr. Castro would resume the leadership of the island he ruled since seizing power in 1959 until last July, when his younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro took temporary charge during Fidel Castro’s illness.

Since then, Mr. Castro has only appeared in videos often in the company of Mr. Chavez and in photos published in Cuba’s state-run publications and other Latin American newspapers.

Photos taken after Mr. Castro’s numerous surgeries showed him looking frail, often lying in bed or sitting in a wheelchair.

For months after the announcement of Mr. Castro’s illness, U.S. intelligence officials speculated that Fidel Castro was suffering from both Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease, an inflammation in the digestive tract, and would never return to power.

In December, U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte said that Mr. Castro had “months, not years” to live.

Cuban-Americans in Miami celebrated his stepping down in July, and city officials planned for a celebration at the Orange Bowl after Mr. Castro’s expected death.

It appears, however, that Mr. Castro’s foes will have to wait a while longer for the demise of “El Presidente,” as his health improves and he resumes his workload.

Last month, Mr. Castro met in Havana with top Chinese official Wu Guanzheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China. China’s Xinhua news agency reported that the meeting took place in a Cuban hospital.

Beijing is a major trading partner of Havana, and the two countries did nearly $2 billion in business last year. Mr. Wu also met then with the younger Mr. Castro, with whom he signed a bilateral agreement on economic and technical cooperation a sign that Cuba’s leadership might remain a co-presidency as long as Fidel Castro is alive.

“It certainly looks interesting,” said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, conceding that Mr. Castro indeed looks healthier.

“I’d still be cautious to come to the conclusion that he is resuming his power,” he added.

Mr. Bilbao speculated that the last nine months were a “rehearsal” of sorts for Raul and those closest to Fidel for the day the Cuban president does die.

Others like Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, contend that the interim leadership is a window into what a post-Fidel Cuba would look like.

Mr. Castro’s illness “was a partial pre-revision of what it would look like in a post-Castro Cuba,” said Mr. Birns. Raul Castro has kept a firm grip on Cuba since the handover in July. In April, a journalist and a lawyer were imprisoned as dissidents and sentenced to four and 12 years in prison, respectively.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, a Cuban American, disagrees, contending that repeated assertions from Havana that Cuba’s Communist Party would continue its reign regardless of the fate of Fidel was a sign of official worry for the island’s future amid efforts by the United States to promote democracy in the country.

“It’s further proof that the regime will die with Fidel Castro,” said Mr. Diaz-Balart. “Those that say Raul and others are in power are missing the boat.”

A Cuban soldier walked next to billboards depicting Cuban Revolution martyrs in the Revolution Square in Havana during preparations for May Day celebrations today. A top Cuban official wouldn’t say whether Mr. Castro might attend the annual May Day events.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images photographs

This image from state-run Cuban television showed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) looking at a note written by his Cuban counterpart, Fidel Castro, at a hospital in Havana on Sept. 1, 2006. Mr. Castro, 80, is still recovering from intestinal surgery, but Mr. Chavez says he is “in charge.”

Evo Morales (below left), at the time Bolivian president-elect, stood next to Mr. Castro upon his arrival in Havana Dec. 30, 2005. Last weekend, Mr. Morales was quoted in Bolivian news media saying he was certain Mr. Castro would resume leadership of the island he has ruled since seizing power in 1959.

Mr. Castro greeted Wu Guanzheng, a member of the Standing Committee of China’s Communist Party, in Havana April 20. Mr. Castro met with Mr. Wu, a top Chinese official for an hour, local television reported, in another sign that the convalescing leader is recovering his official duties.

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