WASHINGTON – Cuban President Fidel Castro, ailing and out of sight, has been meeting with a trickle of international guests in recent months, a U.S. government official said Tuesday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive situation with Cuba, declined to say with whom Castro was meeting. But the meetings, generally with visitors from Latin America, suggest he may be setting the stage for a transition of power that he hopes will protect the government he has built over four decades.
In a review of global threats last week, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said that Castro and his brother Raul, who has taken over as Cuba's temporary leader, are trying to create a "soft landing" during the transfer of control.
"From the point of the United States policy, we don't want to see that happen," Negroponte said. "We want to see the prospects for freedom in that country enhanced as a result of the transition" from Fidel Castro.
Negroponte also said Castro's days "seem to be numbered," a view supported Tuesday by the U.S. government official. That official said U.S. intelligence believes that Castro is likely to die within a month or two, although analysts don't yet know the precise nature of his illness.
That assessment narrowed the life-expectancy estimate of U.S. intelligence agencies, which previously had said Castro was not expected to make it through the end of this year.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on Tuesday that Castro has had at least three failed operations and is suffering complications from an intestinal infection, leaving him with a "grave prognosis."
The reported rare details about his medical treatment, citing two unidentified sources from Madrid's Gregorio Maranon hospital, which employs surgeon Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido. An expert in the digestive system, Sabrido flew to Cuba in December to treat Castro and returned insisting that the 80-year-old was recovering slowly from a serious operation.
One of the journalists who wrote the article told The Associated Press that Sabrido was not one of the two sources. The journalist, Oriol Guell, said the sources were both doctors at the hospital, but he declined to identify them.
A Cuban diplomat in Madrid said the El Pais report was false. "If anyone has to talk about Castro's illness, it's Havana," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of official policy.
U.S. officials will not disclose how they glean clues to Castro's health. But American spy agencies employ physicians who study images, public statements and other information coming out of Cuba and other countries.
Some intelligence officials believe Castro is suffering from diverticular disease, which can cause bleeding in the lower intestine, especially in people over 60. Others believe that Castro has cancer of the stomach, the colon or perhaps the pancreas.
Yet Cuban officials told a delegation of U.S. lawmakers visiting last month that Castro did not have cancer, and the Spanish doctor who came to check on him said the same.
Havana's public position is that Castro is alive, healthy and will return to power, which U.S. analysts discount.
Negroponte said last week it is an open question whether Castro's death could trigger a popular demand for democratic change.
"What is not known is whether people are holding back — maybe we're not seeing the kind of the ferment yet that one might expect to see once Mr. Castro has definitively departed the scene," said Negroponte, who has been nominated by President Bush to be deputy secretary of state.
Pressed further by senators on whether the U.S. knows what to expect in Cuba, Negroponte added: "We don't know in large measure because it is a repressive society. They've repressed their opposition so severely over all these years, so people aren't exactly speaking up yet."
Despite uncertainty about the future of Cuba, the island's Communist Party retains firm control on the island. And the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, said Raul Castro probably will maintain power and stability after his older brother dies — "at least for the short term."
"Raul Castro has widespread respect and support among Cuban military leaders who will be crucial in permanent government succession," Maples said in written testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.Click here fore more news from around the world.