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Monday, November 13, 2006

U.S. believes Castro has less than 18 months to live

WASHINGTON - The U.S. government believes that Cuban leader Fidel Castro has terminal cancer and has less than 18 months to live, government officials say.

The information is not based on insider reports but rather on publicly available materials such as videos and still photographs of Castro released by the communist government, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The officials said the government is convinced that Castro suffers from terminal cancer but does not know what type of cancer or what part of his body it is affecting. It was not clear when the 18-month period began or ends.

On July 31, Castro handed most of his powers to his brother Raul Castro after undergoing intestinal surgery for a still undisclosed ailment. Castro has never flatly denied earlier reports that he suffers from cancer.

Since then, the Cuban government has periodically released videos and photos of the 80-year-old Castro, including Oct. 28 footage that showed him pointing to media reports published that day to deny widespread rumors that he had died.

The several sets of photos of Fidel Castro released by the Cuban government have shown him in what appears to be a progressively worsening health. His speech seems weak and slow, and the one video of him walking shows him taking faltering, wide-apart steps.

The U.S. officials cite the Cuban leader's own report about six weeks ago that he had lost 41 pounds as a "wasting" of muscle tissue - a tell-tale sign of cancer.

Several of the more recent photographs have shown him wearing an oversized track suit in Cuba's red, white and blue colors - and one showed a bulge on his left hip in an indication that he may have been fitted with a colostomy bag.

The latest video, released a month after his previous photographs, showed him chatting on the phone and swinging his arms in a stand-up exercise. He has retained his beard and head hair, apparently indicating that he has not undergone the type of chemotherapy that would make his hair fall out.

But Castro repeated for the camera his earlier comments that his recovery would be "prolonged and not exempt of risk" and ominously added that he had "no fear of what might happen."

He mocked reports that he had died. "Now let's see what they say. Now they'll have to resuscitate me, huh?" Castro said in the video. "They're making fools of themselves."

Other governments also believe that Castro has cancer. The Miami Herald recently reported that one Latin American intelligence agency believes Castro has cancer and that doctors were keeping his public appearances to a minimum to reduce any chances of infection.

But U.S. officials apparently do not know the exact nature of Castro's cancer. The Associated Press, citing U.S. and Defense Department officials, reported Sunday that the Cuban leader has cancer of the stomach, pancreas or colon.

The report says the U.S. officials believe Castro may not last through 2007, and would live up to 18 months if he undergoes chemotherapy, and three to eight months without it.

Periodically, Cuban officials issue reassuring statements about Castro, although the recent pronunciations have become more guarded.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, in an interview with the Associated Press last week, backed away from earlier predictions that Castro would make his first public appearance on Dec. 2 - a delayed celebration of his Aug. 13 birthday.

According to a Radio Havana report Saturday, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon said Castro "is well" and "complying in a disciplined manner with his recovery program."

But Alarcon also said Castro's appearance on Dec. 2 "will be conditioned to the judgment of the physicians who elaborated his recovery program."

Raul Castro has made few public appearances but has given indications that he will take a different track than Fidel. His speeches have stressed worker productivity and corruption issues, rather than echo his brother's denunciations of U.S. imperialism, and his government has announced a plan to study flaws in the communist system.

In public, the U.S. government has been refusing to comment on Castro's health, although State Department officials have said that it believes he will never again exercise the maximum power he once held.

One U.S. government official said there was a "slow-motion" succession already under way in Cuba, with Raul Castro at the helm, but did not elaborate.

Castro's last public statement was Nov. 7, when he congratulated Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega - a close ally - for his victory in a presidential election.
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