For the first time since he took control of Cuba in 1959, a frail Fidel Castro has temporarily relinquished his presidential power amid growing speculation over his health.
Castro, less than two weeks away from his 80th birthday, did not appear on the live television broadcast in which his secretary read a letter from the Cuban leader. It was the first time in 47 years that he has relaxed his iron grip on the country.
Fidel Castro, who has wielded absolute power over Cuba and defied the United States for 47 years, remained out of sight yesterday after undergoing intestinal surgery and temporarily turning over authority to his brother Raul.
The announcement that Castro had been operated on stunned Cubans on the island and in exile.
The news came on Monday night in a statement read on state television by his secretary, Carlos Valenciaga.
The message said Castro's condition was apparently due to stress from a heavy work schedule during recent trips to Argentina and eastern Cuba.
Castro, who took control of Cuba in 1959, resisted repeated US attempts to oust him and survived communism's demise elsewhere, also said in the statement that he was temporarily handing over leadership of the Communist Party to his younger brother, Raul.
Fidel Castro last appeared in public last Wednesday as he marked the 53rd anniversary of his July 26 barracks assault that launched the revolution.
The Cuban leader seemed thinner than usual and somewhat weary during a pair of long speeches in eastern Cuba.
"The operation obligates me to undertake several weeks of rest," Castro's letter read. Extreme stress "had provoked in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obligated me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure."
The calm delivery of the announcement appeared to signal that there would be an orderly succession should Fidel Castro become permanently incapacitated.
White House spokesman Peter Watkins said US authorities were monitoring the situation: "We can't speculate on Castro's health, but we continue to work for the day of Cuba's freedom."
It is official US policy to "undermine" Cuba's planned succession to Raul Castro.
Yesterday, before Castro's illness was announced, President Bush was in Miami and spoke of the island's future.
"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 in which they've been living under," he told WAQI-AM Radio Mambi, a Spanish-language radio station.
"No one knows when Fidel Castro will move on. In my judgment, that's the work of the Almighty."
Castro has resisted US demands for multiparty elections and an open economy and has insisted his socialist system would long outlive him.
Cuban exiles celebrated in the streets of Miami, but Havana's streets were quiet overnight as Cubans awaited further word on Castro's condition.
Fidel Castro seemed optimistic of recovery, asking that celebrations scheduled for his 80th birthday on August 13 be postponed until December 2, the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces.