HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s long absence from public view has fueled wild rumors among his exiled opponents in Miami in recent weeks that he is dead, even one that Russian embalmers were at work preserving his body.
In Cuba, confident Communist Party officials who have been relaxing at the beach are back in town with suntans to show and not an inkling of concern over Castro’s health or the country’s future without him.
“Don’t believe a word. It’s all a fabrication by the Miami crowd,” said an aide to a senior Cuban official.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque began a visit this week to Iran, a sure sign that Castro is not at death’s door, commented a Western diplomat.
Castro, 81, has not appeared in public since he underwent life-threatening bowel surgery that forced him to hand over power 13 months ago to his brother Raul Castro, 76.
Few Cubans have access to the Internet, so most had no clue of the rumor frenzy in Miami, set off by two blogs that declared Castro dead on August 24. One falsely reported that Cuban media had been playing classical music for two hours prior to an imminent announcement that never came.
On the streets of Havana, Cubans say they have no doubt the ailing leader is alive, even though the country has not seen video footage of him or heard his voice for three months.
Many Cubans appear too busy making ends meet to reflect about Castro’s health, let alone read or listen to the regular articles attributed to him in the party newspaper Granma and read out repeatedly on state media.
“He is alive, I’m sure,” said Genaro, a sports coach. “With or without Fidel, Cubans are too busy getting by to think about his absence.”
In a new column published on Tuesday, Castro criticized foreign investment, which the government under his brother is considering increasing to revive Cuba’s battered economy.
Castro said he reads foreign press reports about Cuba every day and defended his legacy of universal free education and health services provided by the Cuban state, while railing against the “selfish instinct” of U.S.-led capitalism.
Cuban authorities maintain Castro, who seized power leading a guerrilla force in Cuba’s 1959 revolution, is recovering from a series of intestinal operations for a secret illness. But they no longer insist he will be back in office.
Even Castro’s closest ally, Venezuela’s populist president Hugo Chavez, has stopped saying that his political mentor will soon reappear in his trademark military fatigues to rally the leftist Latin American cause against the United States.
Foreign observers in Havana believe Castro is alive, but say he appears to be chronically ill.
A European diplomat said he thought Castro had suffered a relapse in recent months and undergone additional surgery, which would explain why he has not been seen since a pretaped television interview aired on June 5.
“These operations are to save his life, not to cure him,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.
Raul Castro has been running Cuba since July last year in a seamless political succession opposed by Washington, where the Bush administration has called for the opening up of Cuba’s one-party state to free elections.
As acting president, Raul Castro has had a year to get a grasp of Cuba’s most pressing problems, from food shortages to dilapidated housing and deficient public transport. In a July 26 speech, he promised “structural” reforms and better pay.
The European diplomat doubted the reforms would go far enough to reduce discontent over enduring economic hardships that could spill onto the streets after Fidel Castro dies.
The leader of Germany’s Left Party, Oskar Lafontaine, who met with top Communist party officials in Havana last week, said Cuba would remain stable under a new collective leadership when Castro is gone.
“The last few months have shown that Cuba is evolving in political stability,” Lafontaine told reporters. “All my hosts openly addressed the issue of the post-Castro era. They said Cuba will remain stable after Fidel Castro.”