Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Castro hands over power to brother in Cuba

Veteran Cuban leader Fidel Castro has temporarily handed power to his brother Raul because of illness.

A statement written by the president and read out on TV by his personal secretary said Mr Castro had undergone surgery to halt internal bleeding.

The Cuban leader, who turns 80 this month, said a punishing schedule in recent weeks had affected his health. He has not been in the best of health for a couple of years.

This is the first time Mr Castro has relinquished any of his duties since he came to power in 1959, which means that it must be more than small surgery for this to happen.

Raul Castro, the defence minister, has long been designated as his successor should he become incapacitated.

Cuba has a communist style, one-party system.

In his statement, Fidel Castro said a recent trip to Argentina and last week's anniversary of the Cuban Revolution had caused him "days and nights of non-stop work" and put him under "extreme stress", resulting intestinal bleeding he said, which meant he needed an operation which would require several weeks of rest.

"Since our country is threatened by the US Government under circumstances such as these," the statement said, Mr Castro had delegated his functions as president and first secretary of the Communist Party to his brother Raul, who is 75.

The BBC's Stephen Gibbs in Havana says the fact that the Cuban leader did not appear in person to read the letter has added to speculation about the gravity of his condition. Is Castro dead?

There is no question that something serious is happening to Fidel, and this may be a major turning point for Cuba.

Handing over the reins of power will be a shock to many Cubans, 70% of whom have known no other leader, our correspondent says - and the external enemies of Mr Castro will doubtless believe this is the moment for change.

Fidel Castro has been among the world's longest-ruling leaders - outlasting nine US presidents.

The White House said it was monitoring the situation, but did not wish to speculate on Mr Castro's health.

"We will continue to work for the day of Cuba's freedom," said spokesman Peter Watkins.

***Update*** He is back and recovering nicely, according to himself.

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