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Ailing Castro picks brother

Havana, Aug 1 (Reuters): Stunned Cubans nervously contemplated a future without Fidel Castro today after the communist US foe, who has dominated political life for nearly 50 years, stepped aside for the first time with a serious illness.

Cuba’s ally Venezuela said the 79-year-old President was recovering after surgery to stop bleeding in his intestines, but there was no word from Cuba on his condition since news yesterday that he was handing power to his brother Raul.

It was the first time Castro, who will be 80 on August 13, had stood aside since he took power in 1959, prompting speculation that he was gravely ill or could already be dead.

The news sparked street dancing in the Cuban exile district of Miami where Castro’s enemies, backed by the US, yearn for the demise of the West’s only communist government.

In Cuba, where Castro’s guerrillas once swept down from the Sierra Maestra hills to overthrow a US-backed dictator, word of his illness brought apprehension over the future of the island nation of 11 million.

Castro, who last appeared in public giving a July 26 speech, said in a “proclamation” read out by an aide on television that he overexerted himself last month, partly due to a trip to a summit of South American leaders in Argentina.

“This caused an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obliged me to face a complicated surgical operation,” he said in the statement read out last night by his personal aide, Carlos Valenciaga. “The operation obliges me to remain for several weeks resting, away from my responsibilities and duties,” it said.

Castro, whose health has been an issue since he fainted during a speech in 2001, gave the reins of the ruling Communist Party, the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and president of the executive council of state to Raul Castro, 75, his brother and constitutional successor.

He said he was delegating power to his brother, who firmly commands Cuba’s 50,000-member armed forces which in turn control the police, because Cuba was “under threat from the US government”. Cubans went about their lives calmly today with no signs in Havana of an increased police presence.

Venezuela, whose Leftist President Hugo Chavez has become a close ally of Castro, said in a statement from its foreign relations ministry that Castro’s recovery was “advancing positively,” citing information from the Cuban government.

But medical experts said surgery for major bleeding in a elderly man is risky and could require several months of rest. “Fidel must be in very bad shape to have handed over all powers. I pray that God helps him recover,” said Carmen Vallejo, a dissident in Havana whose father was Castro’s friend and doctor in the early days of the revolution.

The news sparked wild celebrations in Miami, where many exiles view Castro as a brutal dictator whose demise could usher in a new democratic era for their homeland.

“I think there’s a possibility that he may be very, very ill or dead,” Cuba-born Senator. Mel Martinez said.

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