THE health of Cuban President Fidel Castro who died on Friday at the age of 90 years, was always a state secret in the small Caribbean island country, until reports said he had for years suffered an unspecified intestinal illness which already forced him to hand over power to his brother in July 2006.
The exact nature of the illness was never confirmed by either Castro or the Cuban government, although media reports mentioned diverticulosis.
“I was dead,” Castro said of the 2006 bout of the illness in an interview four years later. “I no longer aspired to living.”
In the years that followed, he appeared to have recovered and was seen in public several times, visibly frail but in good spirits. However, in the months before his death he had gone more and more silent and he was last seen in public in late March, after more than a year away from public life.
The secrecy surrounding Castro’s health forever prompted speculation.
Castro was only known to have suffered two previous incidents of physical problems, and both happened in public. In June 2001 he had a fainting spell as he addressed a mass audience in Havana.
On October 2004 he slipped at the end of a rally in the Cuban town of Santa Clara, injuring his arm and leg. He subsequently was seen in public in a wheelchair for the first time ever.
The news of Castro’s 2006 health trouble was divulged in late July that year through a document that was handwritten and allegedly signed by Fidel Castro himself.
The Cuban leader claimed that his health problems had arisen from stress from his visit to Argentina barely two weeks earlier, where he delivered a three-hour speech to a crowd of 50,000, and subsequent commitments in his own country.
“This caused me an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding which forced me to undergo complicated surgery,” the Cuban president allegedly wrote. He added that after the operation he would need “several weeks of rest.”
However, weeks gave way to months and years. Castro’s temporary exit from the Cuban Presidency became permanent in February 2008, while he formally stepped down from the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party in April 2011.
Over the years, the fit, ever-active revolutionary gave way to an elderly man in good spirits but frail health, as one might expect for a late octogenarian, but Cuban authorities never kept the public up to date with his physical troubles.