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Castro toppled by concrete step

Friday, October 22, 2004

The Associated Press

HAVANA -- Cuban President Fidel Castro's advancing age -- and ultimately his mortality -- were brought home Thursday after he fractured a knee and arm when he tripped and fell at a public event.

In a communist society where the 78-year-old leader has played a larger-than-life role for more than four decades, the tumble was the latest reminder that Castro is an aging man who will not live forever.

"I'm all in one piece," Castro declared Wednesday night after tripping on a concrete step while returning to his seat after an hour-long speech in the central city of Santa Clara.

A medical examination early Thursday confirmed Castro suffered a broken left knee and a hairline fracture in his upper right arm, said an official notice carried by state media.

"His general health is good, and he is in excellent spirits," it said, adding that Castro hoped to be "back in place" soon.

"He asked that it be made known he is in condition to keep overseeing fundamental questions in close cooperation with government and party leaders," the statement said.

Parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon, who has been by Castro's side more than four decades, said Thursday he was confident the president would recover quickly.

"He is a man of much strength," Alarcon told international journalists in Havana.

Nevertheless, Castro's tumble -- captured by Associated Press Television News, but not shown by state television cameras -- was sure to cause speculation about the communist leader's health after 45 years of ruling this island of 11.2 million people.

Castro's health has long been closely watched -- particularly by his political enemies in Miami, home to a large Cuban exile community.

"Sometimes, people have this idea that he's some sort of god, that he's omnipotent," said Yanisset Rivero, spokeswoman for the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a Miami group that supports dissidents on the island. "It's a sign ... that he's human."

Rights activist Elizardo Sanchez of Havana predicted the incident would not immediately affect government policies, but it "does put on the agenda the theme of the advanced age of various leaders."

In the last several years, Castro's knees have seemed more wobbly, his step less steady. Nevertheless, he maintains a busy schedule that frequently includes all-night meetings with aides and visitors.

Average Cubans did not seem as alarmed Thursday as they were three years ago, when Castro fainted in the scorching Caribbean sun during a live televised speech before a crowd of thousands.

"He needs to get well soon," Georgina Hernandez said Thursday as she walked on the streets of Old Havana. "The Cuban people need him and need him to last a long time."

Taxi driver Emilio Lagos said, "I hope he will have good health for at least 20 more years."

"He's our guide," added Fermina Pino, a middle-aged Cuban woman.

In Washington, the State Department declined to wish a speedy recovery to Castro, who has remained in power during 10 American administrations.

"We, obviously, have expressed our views about what's broken in Cuba," said spokesman Richard Boucher.

The June 23, 2001, incident in which Castro collapsed behind the podium several hours into a speech prompted many Cubans for the first time to reflect on, and openly discuss, Castro's mortality and their country's future.

Castro's designated successor has long been his brother, 73-year-old Defense Minister Raul Castro, who fought with him in the Cuban revolution that overthrew President Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.

Raul Castro is first vice president of both the government's ruling Council of State and of the Communist Party -- directly after his brother. The constitution does not specify a No. 3 in the presidential succession.

Also mentioned as possible successors have been Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 39, a former personal secretary to Castro, and Vice President Carlos Lage, 53, who as Cabinet secretary has broad experience in helping oversee the economy and government.

Exclusive APTN footage of Castro's fall on Wednesday showed the Cuban leader tripped on a concrete step after descending the stairs from the stage after a speech and fell forward, hard on his right side.

Cubans watching on state television did not see the fall, only several security men running off to the side.

Aides and security agents immediately surrounded the president and helped him to a folding chair.

"I will do what is possible to recover as fast as possible, but as you can see I can still talk," Castro told television viewers, sweating profusely into his olive green uniform from the pain. "Even if they put me in a cast, I can continue in my work."


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