HAVANA – A cheerful and fit-looking Fidel Castro scoffed at new reports of failing health, saying Thursday that he feels "better than ever." But he also promised to step down if he became too ill to govern.
At the University of Havana, the 79-year-old communist leader hugged and chatted with scores of student leaders from Cuban colleges. It was part of a celebration to mark the start of Castro's law studies 60 years ago.
"They have tried to kill me off so many times," Castro said. But those who circulate the frequent reports that his health is suffering would be disappointed, he said. "I feel, luckily, better than ever," he said.
Dressed in his trademark olive green uniform, the communist leader seemed full of energy during a speech that lasted more than five hours.
The latest report about Castro's health emerged Wednesday when U.S. officials said American intelligence analysis indicates he may suffer from Parkinson's disease. The report was first carried by The Miami Herald.
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 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, stretching out a steady arm. "Look at the Parkinson's," he said sarcastically.
Reports that Castro has Parkinson's have been around for years. He also has been reported to have suffered from other diseases.
There was alarm last year when he fell on a concrete step while leaving a speech, breaking his kneecap and an arm. His health was also a concern in 2001, when he fainted during a speech under a hot sun.
Castro's designated successor has long been his younger brother, 74-year-old Defense Minister Raul Castro.
Castro and other Cuban officials insist "there will be no transition" and that the island's socialist political and economic systems will endure long after he is gone.