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Talk Of Ill Health Surrounds Castro’s Birthday Cuban Leader Turns 71 Amid Speculation Of Succession

Thu., Aug. 14, 1997

Cuban President Fidel Castro turned 71 on Wednesday with little fanfare, but questions about his health and why he hasn’t made a public speech in four months went unanswered.

The official Granma newspaper and Radio Rebelde barely noted the birthday of the man who has ruled Cuba since 1959. Prensa Latina, the government news agency, reported that the event would be marked only with the “normal moderation.”

But Prensa Latina’s report and a brief video of Castro chatting with foreign labor leaders and Cuban journalists last Friday failed to answer recent doubts about Castro’s health.

Castro has not made a public speech since April 4, despite important events like the July 26th anniversary of his revolution and the opening and closing ceremonies of an international youth festival in Havana.

A Spanish businessman who said he saw Castro during a two-hour meeting last week in Havana described him as “totally normal, alert and on his feet throughout the gathering.”

Castro has seemed unusually thin and fatigued in recent news photographs and videos broadcast by Cuban television, prompting a spate of talk in Cuba about his possible succession.

A U.S. businessman who saw Castro about one month ago described him as looking ashen and speaking in near-whispers, needing the help of assistants to walk and often swishing his dentures around his mouth.

Castro’s health is officially a state secret, though knowledgeable defectors claim he had a minor heart attack in the early 1990s and suffers from diverticulitis, an inflammation of the colon that can cause bouts of intense abdominal pain.

On his birthday last year, Castro said he was certain his revolution would survive although he was “conscious that I am not eternal. I am flesh and bones, but that does not scare or worry me.”

Asked five years ago about his many years in power, Castro answered: “A revolutionary never retires.”


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