But U.S. officials tell TIME that many in the U.S. government are now convinced that Castro, 80, has terminal cancer and will never return to power. "Certainly we have heard this, that this guy has terminal cancer," said one U.S. official.
Of course, such intelligence reports could be wrong, and one official cautioned that definitive proof is nearly impossible for the U.S. to come by. Yet the fact that the Cuban government removed Castro from the public stage before his death could suggest that Castro and his would-be successors were aware of a terminal condition and wanted to gauge public reaction to his absence. "They got to see how people would react," says one U.S. official. "They have had a chance to see how things might work without out him functioning day-to-day."
Contacted by TIME, the Cuban government denied the imminent demise of its leader. One high-ranking official said, "The United States Intelligence Services have been wrong for more than 47 years in their predictions not only in relation to the health of the Cuban President but also in all aspects regarding our country." He referred to Castro's July 31 statement as the only definitive assessment of the President's health. In it, Castro declared that surgery and treatment for intestinal bleeding "obliges me to spend several weeks in repose, away from my responsibilities and duties." Cuban sources say that preparations continue for a belated but elaborate celebration of Castro's 80th birthday on Dec. 2.
The U.S. government has been preparing for Castro's departure for half a century. That doesn't mean that things will change much. Fidel's brother Raul, 75, has been acting president since Fidel went into the hospital and has given no indication that he will change the policies of the isolated Communist government that has tormented the U.S. since taking power in 1959. Though he has until recently kept a very low profile, Raul Castro not Fidel was feted as the host of the non-aligned nations' summit on Sept. 15. Then Raul called a high-profile meeting of the country's local, provincial and national leadership at what he called "this historic moment in our country's history." In another sign of his increasing prominence, two weeks ago Raul delivered his first televised national speech at the close of a trade union federation congress.