Fidel Castro scoffed at new reports that he suffers from Parkinson's disease, saying those who believe the countless rumors about his health will be disappointed when he lives on. In an apparent first, he insisted he would step down if he became too ill to govern. "They have tried to kill me off so many times," Castro told scores of student leaders who gathered Thursday to mark the start of the 79-year-old president's studies at the University of Havana 60 years ago.
But, Castro said, "disappointment follows disappointment," for those who believe and circulate the frequent reports that his health is suffering. "I feel, luckily, better than ever."
Dressed in his trademark olive green uniform, the communist leader looked fit and actually seemed to gain strength as he stood at a mahogany lectern inside the university's elegant Aula Magna during a speech that lasted a little more than 5 1/2 hours.
The latest report about Castro's health emerged Wednesday when U.S. officials said that American intelligence analysis indicates he may suffer from Parkinson's disease.
The report was first carried by The Miami Herald, citing government officials saying the CIA was briefing American policy makers about the Cuban leader's health and warning them to be prepared if his health deteriorated and made it difficult for him to lead.
The Cuban president, now in power for nearly 47 years, said he would not insist on remaining in power if he ever became too sick to lead the country.
"If I don't feel I'm in condition, I'll call the (Communist) Party and tell them I don't feel I'm in condition ... that please, someone take over the command," Castro said.
But Castro also indicated such a scenario was unlikely to occur soon, telling the students that he exercises regularly, watches his diet, "and don't neglect myself in any way."
"And now they say that the CIA has discovered I have Parkinson's!" he told the student leaders at his alma mater, where he studied law before he launched the revolution that triumphed on Jan. 1, 1959.
"I wouldn't care if I got Parkinson's, the Pope (John Paul II) had Parkinson's," he said, and stretched out a steady arm. "Look at the Parkinson's," he said sarcastically.
Castro expounded on scores of other themes during his extemporaneous address, railing against Cuban workers who he said have become the "new rich" by stealing gasoline and other goods from the state. He called the United States a "bandit" in partnership with the "pro-Nazi state of Israel" to create a "holocaust" in Palestine, and said the U.S. government was "threatening" Iran by saying it suspected it of trying to build a nuclear arsenal because of plans to build a nuclear reactor for a power plant.
Countless rumors have circulated about Castro's health over the years, especially as he has grown older, and they have been regularly dismissed by Cuban authorities. The reports about Parkinson's, a degenerative disease that can cause tremors, have been around for at least seven years. He also has been reported to have suffered from everything from strokes to cancer.
The obsession with the Cuban leader's health is especially profound in South Florida, home to hundreds of thousands of anti-Castro exiles who dream of a different country after their nemesis dies. Castro turns 80 next August, reports the AP. I.L.