Fidel Castro, the world's longest-lasting Communist leader, handed over control of Cuba - temporarily at least - to his younger brother, Raul, yesterday.
The 79-year-old revolutionary and arch enemy of the United States was forced to give up power for the first time in half a century because of a suspected stomach ulcer and internal bleeding.
|Fidel Castro with his younger brother Raul|
The news triggered euphoric scenes in Miami where Cuban exiles danced in the streets, celebrating what they hoped was the beginning of the end of the leader of the Caribbean nation's revolution.
In a letter to his people, read on television by an aide, Castro said he was recovering from surgery to staunch the bleeding and had assigned the presidency and the leadership of the army and the Communist party to his brother because Cuba is "threatened by the United States government".
"The operation obliges me to undertake several weeks of rest," Castro wrote. "Extreme stress has caused in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that forced me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure.
"The days and nights of continuous work with hardly any sleep caused my health, which has withstood all tests, to suffer great stress and be ruined. There is no doubt the people and the revolution will struggle until the last drop of blood."
On the streets of Havana, the mood was sombre as the islanders worried what the future held.
Yaitami, a chemical engineer who was hitching a ride to work in Havana, said people were worried about Castro but confident he had planned his succession well. "The Americans think this will collapse when Fidel dies, but everything has been thought out," she said.
For decades, 75-year-old Raul Castro, his brother's defence minister, has been the constitutional successor. He has taken on a more public role in more recent months, but many commentators believe that the Communist stranglehold over the country would not survive the death of his charismatic but tyrannical sibling.
As news of Castro's announcement reached America, the US coastguards were put on red alert, patrolling the waters off the Florida coast less than 90 miles from Cuba.
Experts predict that Castro's death would spark a mass exodus from Cuba to America and an equally large exodus from Miami in the opposite direction, as Cuban exiles headed to meet family members they have not been able to see for decades.
Cuban exiles celebrated the surprise announcement and several experts were convinced that his condition must be extremely serious to warrant the unprecedented handing over of power.
"Obviously, we're all going to be very, very happy the day that he dies," said Manny Diaz, the mayor of Miami. "We'll be keeping a close eye."
America has tried to topple Castro since he fought his way to power in the 1959 revolution. President John F Kennedy's attempt to invade Cuba in 1961 ended in the Bay of Pigs debacle, and numerous CIA assassination attempts, including one reportedly involving an exploding Havana cigar, came to nothing.
"Our objective is to free the Cuban people," President George W. Bush said yesterday.
Earlier, while talking to Cuban exiles in Miami, Mr Bush said: "If Fidel Castro were to move on because of natural causes, we've got a plan in place to help the people of Cuba understand there's a better way than the system they've been living under. No one knows when Fidel Castro will move on. In my judgment, that's the work of the Almighty."
It has not been revealed when or where Castro had the operation, or where he is recovering. Yesterday the Venezuelan government, Cuba's biggest ally in Latin America, said the dictator's recovery was "advancing positively" after surgery, citing information from the island's government without providing more details. Intestinal bleeding can be life-threatening, although it is not known in which part of the digestive tract that Castro is bleeding. Ulcers are the most common form of internal bleeding.
He was last seen in public a week ago, as he celebrated Revolution Day, marking the 50th anniversary of the battle that launched the revolution. He managed several long speeches and shouted a few revolutionary slogans, but appeared drawn and tired. He had been due to celebrate his 80th birthday in a fortnight, but celebrations have been postponed until December.
The stress he was suffering was attributed to an intense work schedule during recent trips to eastern Cuba and Argentina, where he visited the childhood home of his fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara, in the company of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.
He signed off his letter with several revolutionary slogans, writing: "Imperialism will never be able to crush Cuba. The Battle of Ideas will continue. Long live the fatherland, long live the revolution, long live socialism. Always towards victory!"
Castro has survived nine US presidents, the fall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as the numerous American attempts to assassinate or oust him.
He is the third-longest serving head of state in the world after the Queen and the King of Thailand.
Seventy per cent of Cuba's 11 million-strong population have been born since he came to power.
But the great survivor might find it hard to beat the encroaching infirmity of old age. In 2001, he fainted during one of his trademark marathon speeches in the intense Cuban sun before leaping to his feet to finish it. In 2004, he shattered a kneecap and broke his arm when he fell after another speech.
Last year, it was reported that he had been suffering from Parkinson's disease since 1998.