WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence agencies, which appeared to be on a death watch for Cuban leader Fidel Castro a few months ago, now believe his health is rebounding and cannot rule out a full return to power, officials said on Tuesday.
May Day celebrations in Havana next week could show just how well the 80-year-old communist leader is recovering from emergency stomach surgery, if Castro appears in public for an annual May 1 parade near his presidential palace, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Castro handed over power temporarily to his brother, Raul Castro, last summer and has since been seen only in videotaped footage and in photographs.
“It would be a definite indication that his health is substantially improved if the doctors were willing to allow him to do that,” a senior intelligence official said.
Castro, who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States, is Washington’s oldest political foe and U.S. officials keep a close watch on his health.
But U.S. intelligence has a poor record on Cuba dating to the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-trained exiles in 1961, which the CIA believed would spark an uprising against Castro that never happened.
Castro’s health, like his whereabouts and personal life, are secrets in Cuba and no details of his medical crisis have leaked outside his inner circle.
For the moment, U.S. intelligence suggests that Castro’s health is still a serious concern but that he has rebounded enough to meet visiting dignitaries, intervene in state affairs and author columns on key issues.
“You could make the point that he already has returned in some form,” another U.S. official said.
U.S. officials including intelligence chief Mike McConnell have cast 2007 as the end of Castro-dominated rule in Cuba. But officials now say Castro could remain a decision-maker on major issues including foreign policy.
“It won’t be a consolidated succession to Raul so long as Fidel’s health holds out,” the senior official said.
A full recovery appears unlikely, according to intelligence analysts who believe Castro has a disease of the large intestine called diverticulitis, complicated by Parkinson’s disease. Some intelligence reports say Castro could also have the inflammatory condition known as Crohn’s disease.
“He probably has rebounded. Whether that means he’s ever going to experience a full recovery would be speculating,” the senior official said.
“It certainly is possible. One can’t rule it out. And it’s the same thing with retaking power. I think it’s unlikely at this point, but we can’t entirely rule it out,” he added.
The senior official said U.S. analysts initially suspected Castro had either cancer or diverticulitis but drifted toward the bleaker diagnosis as months passed without a public appearance.
Former U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte said in a December interview that Castro was near death.
Now U.S. officials believe he had a botched operation for diverticulitis and follow-up surgery in November. But they have still not ruled out cancer.
Castro’s apparent rebound became clearer to U.S. officials with images taken during his hour-long meeting with Chinese officials last week in which he had gained weight.