Castro's health always state secret

(dpa) - The health of Cuban President Fidel Castro has always been a state secret in the small island country, where he handed over power to his brother in August 2006 during an operation for intestinal bleeding.

On Wednesday morning, he made his departure from power official, resigning as president of Cuba and its military commander, the Communist Party's official newspaper, Granma, reported.

Although Castro himself has referred to his illness on several occasions since then, he has not been seen live in public since 2006, although video footage was occasionally released when his closest friends in Latin America such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would visit him.

Little was known of his alleged ailments, and hypotheses were often amplified within the large community of exiled Cubans in Miami, Florida, just 160 kilometres away from the Caribbean island that Castro ruled with an iron fist for nearly half a century.

In January, Castro made the unusual revelation that he thought he was going to die when he fell seriously ill on July 26, 2006.

"When I fell ill on the night of the 26th and the early hours of the 27th I thought it would be the end," Castro wrote in a piece published by the dailies Granma and Juventud Rebelde. The revelation triggered some questions about whether he would go through with his candidacy for another term when Cubans hold National Assembly elections on Sunday.

On July 31, 2006 Castro "temporarily" gave up power to his brother, Raul, and has not returned to government or been seen in public since, although he has met with several distinguished guests.

Castro, 81, explained in January the details of the power transfer and recalled that, at the time he fell ill, he was revising the book Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography, by Spanish-born journalist Ignacio Ramonet.

The Cuban leader said was barely sleeping at all at the time he became sick.

Right before he fell ill in 2006, he joked about the Florida community of immigrants who have pre-planned stadium celebrations for when he dies - a sort of contemptuous send-off for a man they loathe.

"Let the little neighbours up north not worry, for I do not intend to exercise power until I am 100 years old," Castro said in a speech.

The hospital where he was treated in 2006 exercised strict security measures, barring employees from leaving at shift change in the early days.

The secrecy prompted speculation that reports of his illness could actually mean he was already dead.

In Florida, the county government where much of Cuba's immigrant community lives in Little Havana, set up a telephone hotline for rumour control about Castro's illness coming out of Cuba.

Castro is only known to have suffered two previous incidents of physical problems, and both happened in public. In June 2001, he had a fainting spell as he addressed a mass audience in Havana.

In October 2004, he slipped at the end of a rally in the Cuban town of Santa Clara, injuring his arm and leg. He subsequently was seen in public in a wheelchair for the first time ever.

The news of Castro's 2006 illness was divulged through a document that was handwritten and allegedly signed by Fidel Castro himself. The Cuban leader claimed that his health problems arose from stress from a visit to Argentina, where he had delivered a three-hour speech to a crowd of 50,000.

"This caused me an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding which forced me to undergo complicated surgery," the Cuban president allegedly wrote.

He wrote that he would need "several weeks of rest" after the surgery - weeks that have stretched into more than 18 months.

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