CIA has concluded Castro has
Parkinson's, officials say.
WASHINGTON - The CIA recently concluded
that Cuban leader Fidel Castro suffers from Parkinson's disease and has
warned U.S. policymakers to be ready for trouble if the 79-year-old
ruler's health erodes over the next few years.
If true, the CIA's assessment of the nonfatal but debilitating condition
would mean Castro may be entering a period where doctors say the
symptoms grow more evident, medicines are less effective and mental
functions start to deteriorate.
Although Castro's brother Raul, head of the armed forces, has been
anointed as his successor, Cuba analysts fear the possibility of a
tumultuous period during which an incapacitated Castro refuses to give
up power but can no longer project his overpowering personality to
Cuba's 11 million people.
"For Fidel to start shaking in a real and substantial way - in public -
sends quite a powerful message to people around the world," said Frank
O. Mora, a professor of national security strategy at The National War
Rumors that Castro suffers from Parkinson's have been around since the
mid-1990s. In 1998, he even jokingly challenged journalists to a pistol
duel at 25 paces to show the steadiness of his hands.
But the Central Intelligence Agency began briefing senior members of the
State Department and lawmakers about one year ago that its doctors had
become convinced that Castro was diagnosed with the disease around 1998,
said two longtime government officials familiar with the briefings. Both
asked for anonymity because leaking the contents of the classified
briefing could violate U.S. laws.
"About one year ago, we started seeing some pretty definitive stuff that
he had Parkinson's," said one of them.
There has been no independent confirmation of Castro's illness, or any
indication of how the CIA came to its conclusion. The State Department
and the CIA declined to comment for this story.
But one State Department official said there is already evidence that
Castro's abilities are fading noticeably. He is increasingly slurring
his words and going off on tangents in public speeches, although he
seems to have good days and bad days. Clearly, "he is not the same
person he was five years ago," added the official.
Others insist that Castro is fine, however. "He enjoys excellent
health," Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, said
last month after he was asked about Castro's failure to attend the Ibero-American
summit in Spain.
Parkinson's symptoms include tremors, stiffness, difficulty with balance
and muffled speech, although its exact manifestations vary according to
the victim. High-profile individuals stricken with the disease include
the late Pope John Paul II, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno,
actor Michael J. Fox and boxer Muhammad Ali.
Dr. Carlos Singer, a Parkinson's expert at the University of Miami, said
the disease on average cuts short the lifespan of a patient only by one
or two years. "The issue is not as much how long they can live, it is
how much do they suffer in the process," he said.
The first five to eight years usually are "manageable with relatively
small doses of medication," Singer said. After that, symptoms such as
stooped postures and difficulties with balance become more evident. And
in the advanced stages, about 40 percent of patients develop what one
specialist on the disease called "basically an overall decline in
The main drug to ease the symptoms of the disease is levodopa, which
replenishes the brain with the dopamine chemical that is deficient in
Parkinson's. Patients can program their activities around the periods
when the drug is taking effect, known to doctors as "on periods." But
over time, the drug loses its effectiveness.
"As the disease slowly progresses, the medications have to be taken more
frequently, at higher doses," said Paul Larson, a neurosurgeon and
Parkinson's specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
"But you eventually reach a point where the patient is fluctuating
between an `on period' and an `off period' so frequently that you can't,
in essence, keep up with just medications."
Possible side effects of levodopa are involuntary movements and facial
grimaces, as well as visual hallucinations. As both Parkinson's and the
drug can cause blood pressure to drop, patients can sometimes faint,
Castro has displayed some signs of ill health in recent years, though
perhaps no worse than other 79-year-olds.
Castro fainted during a speech in a Havana suburb in 2001 and was seen
almost collapsing during the inauguration of Argentine President Nestor
Kirchner in 2003. A public tumble last year left him with a fractured
knee and arm, and former Ecuador President Lucio Gutierrez wrote in his
recent book that he had to prop up a nodding-off Castro several times
while sitting next to him at an international event.
Cuba watchers also noted Castro was not shown touring the areas of
Havana hit by Hurricane Wilma, something out of character for a man who
has personally managed every crisis in Cuba since taking power in early
1959, from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the Elian Gonzalez affair in
For U.S. policymakers, the report that Castro may suffer from
Parkinson's has sparked concerns about Cuba's political stability down
"It's going to be harder for Fidel to go out and perform, and he's been
performing the guerrilla theater for 50 years," said Brian Latell, a
retired CIA analyst on Cuba. Latell is the author of "After Fidel," a
new book about Castro and his brother Raul, the world's longest-serving
defense minister and the sole designated successor of Castro.
Damian Fernandez, director of Florida International University's Cuban
Research Institute, said the larger questions are how Castro's
subordinates would react to his mental or physical erosion, and how that
could affect Raul's role as Cuba's No. 2.
"I envision Raul trying to forge key alliances with subordinates in the
military and among civilians to rule very tightly," he said. "But I
don't know how this could sustain itself without delivering benefits" to
the Cuban people.
That's assuming that Raul, 74, does not die before his brother. That
would leave Fidel without a clear successor and the powerful military,
now controlled by the younger brother, without a widely recognized or
The result might be political turmoil as senior government officials
jockey for power with a Fidel Castro too infirm to make vital decisions.
"The revolution could be hanging by a thread," Latell said.
But that may be some time away. During his recent TV interview with
Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, Castro said that rumors of his
health were so frequent that "the day that I die, nobody is going to
La Nueva Cuba
November 16, 2005