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Castro's recovery viewed as setback for reform in Cuba

Leader believed to be blocking businesses

Evidence of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's recovery and imminent return to power continues to mount. He is said to be blocking moves to let Cubans open small businesses. Evidence of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's recovery and imminent return to power continues to mount. He is said to be blocking moves to let Cubans open small businesses. (RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

MIAMI -- Nine months after falling victim to an illness that many US analysts assumed would prove fatal, Fidel Castro appears to have come back from death's door to resume some leadership responsibilities and rein in Cuba's would-be reformers.

He's receiving visiting dignitaries, not just friends such as Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela but official delegations, including one led earlier this month by a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, Wu Guanzheng.

Castro's name is again attached to editorials for Cuba's state-run media, ones in which the US government is lambasted for freeing an accused terrorist and Brazil is criticized for using food crops for ethanol production when they could be feeding poor people.

And, to the alarm of veteran Cuba-watchers who sensed a new degree of openness to economic change during Castro's absence, the apparently reinvigorated revolutionary is now believed to be blocking moves to let Cubans open small businesses.

US analysts of Cuban developments acknowledge they know little about Castro's illness or the degree of his recuperation. His personal secretary said he was suffering from intestinal bleeding when he handed over power in the summer to his brother Raúl.

US intelligence sources have speculated he has cancer. But the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported the most plausible version of his prolonged medical attention, citing unidentified doctors familiar with Castro's case. The newspaper said the Cuban president had undergone three surgeries to remove infected intestinal tissue and became gravely ill when the incisions failed to heal and the infection spread to his stomach.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales said he was sure Castro would resume power during May Day celebrations in Havana, the private Unitel television network reported yesterday. "I'm sure, my Cuban brothers, that on May 1 comrade Fidel will return to governing," he said, adding that he had not received any official word from Cuban authorities.

President Bush yesterday called Cuba's communist government, a "cruel dictatorship," but he predicted that democratic change was near.

Bush said in a commencement speech at Miami Dade College in Florida that many Cubans were dreaming of a better life. "Some of you still have loved ones who live in Cuba and wait for the day when the light of liberty will shine upon them again," the president said. "That day is nearing."

Since Raúl Castro, the defense minister and first vice president, took over for his older brother July 31, state-authorized media exposés on rampant corruption and the younger Castro's public criticism of shortages in food, transportation, and housing have hinted at internal review of Cuba's political and economic system, said Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute near Washington and a veteran analyst of Cuban affairs.

Raúl Castro has a reputation for pragmatism about private enterprise within the state-run economy, having inaugurated many of the island's most successful hard currency-earning joint ventures in tourism in the early 1990s, when the country was reeling from the sudden cutoff of Soviet aid.

During the fall, when Fidel Castro was too sick even to make an appearance at the September summit of the Non-Aligned Movement or his delayed 80th birthday celebrations in December, the government announced a thorough review was under way to identify, and presumably correct, flaws in the communist ideology guiding the country.

"Now it looks like cold water's getting poured over all that," Peters said. "That, to me, is the clearest sign that Fidel Castro is getting better and getting closer to coming back to office."

Hopes of an expansion in self-employment were buoyed in the fall when Raúl Castro began speaking out in interviews and speeches about the government's inability to properly provide for its 11.2 million citizens.

Those hopes were dashed, at least for the short term, this month when Vice President Carlos Lage, architect of the early 1990s reforms, parroted Fidel Castro's condemnation of "social distortions" in a speech to a Communist youth group.