MIAMI — It has been two months since Cuban leader Fidel Castro was photographed greeting Chinese President Hu Jintao, and now rumors are swirling once again that he is dying or dead.
CBS News reported Thursday that this time, the rumors could be rooted in something other than conjecture. They quote an unnamed intelligence expert who said that the reports “smell a little different this time.”
The Miami Herald also marshaled evidence that suggests, at the very least, that Castro may be gravely ill and rapidly declining: Rumors also have noticeably increased in Havana, according to CBS, fueled in particularly by puzzling remarks by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He said during a weekly radio and television address that Castro would never return to public life and but would "live on" beyond physical life.
"We already know that the Fidel who used to walk around streets and towns ... in his uniform, embracing people, will no longer be back. He will remain in our memories," said Chavez, whose oil wealth has helped prop up the Castro regime.
The health of Castro, 82 -- who was sidelined in July 2006 by major intestinal surgery after almost 50 years at communist Cuba's helm -- is front-page news in Miami, home to the bulk of the Cuban-American community.
Last February his brother Raul Castro, 76, officially took over as president.
Meanwhile the elder Castro, who had appeared stabilized if frail, was writing regular editorials in official media.
He has not run one recently.
And on January 1, as Cuba celebrated a major historic landmark with the 50th anniversary of the revolution Fidel Castro led, many Cubans expected he might make some kind of appearance in official media.
Instead celebrations were modest, Raul Castro led them and Fidel was a no-show.
There was only a very short anniversary greeting from Fidel Castro in the newspaper. Brevity is something that rarely has been associated with the charismatic and often long-winded Fidel Castro.
A fixation for some, and just speculation for others, the elder Castro's health, or lack thereof, has many abuzz in Miami's coffee shops. Local authorities have standing plans for response to street celebrations that might erupt in an area with more than 800,000 of the over 1.25 million Cuban-Americans.
Cuba has 11 million people, so about one tenth its people have opted to vote with their feet during the Castro era.
"Knowing whether Fidel is dead or not, is just speculation which we won't engage in," said Janisett Rivero of the Directorio Democratico Cubano. She has regular contact with opposition members on the island.
"What we can say is that you can see there is a greater degree of edginess in Cuba, and that they increased repression of the opposition in recent weeks," Rivero told AFP.
"I think that atmosphere is because people's unhappiness is greater, because the government is losing ground and maybe because they are losing their leader once and for all," she added.
While on the Internet some rumors had the ex-premier in "critical condition," several Latin American presidents including Panama's Martin Torrijos and Ecuador's Rafael Correa recently visited Cuba but did not meet with Fidel Castro, formally still head of the Cuban Communist Party.
"The parade of presidents through Havana looks like part of a funeral parade and they even are leaving without seeing him," said Pedro Gonzalez Munne, editor in Miami of the online daily "La Nación Cubana."
"Fidel today is just a symbol. Like a monument in a square," Gonzalez Munne added.
While many older Cuban Americans are fascinated by the elder Castro's fate, many of the younger people are much more concerned by economic concerns in the United States.
Miguel Calleja, 37, works in a restaurant and says once Fidel Castro has died it will be known immediately in Miami. In any case, "we get more news here about what happens in Cuba than Cubans over there," he said.
For Dr. Jose Alfonso, a former military surgeon, the lack of Castro images is all about Castro's image protection.
"I don't think that Fidel Castro has died," said Alonso, also a political analyst on Miami radio. "I just think that they do not want him to be shown in the state he is in."
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