February 19, 2008, 10:44 am Fidel Castro and the Health Secrets of World Leaders Posted by Jacob Goldstein Fidel Castro said today that he’s stepping down, but the beginning of the end came nearly two years ago, when he had emergency surgery to treat intestinal bleeding. The official word at the time was that the bleeding was brought on by “stress,” though outside observers speculated that Castro was sick with something much more serious than that. Cuba-watchers in the U.S. government told Time magazine Castro had terminal cancer. Others said diverticulitis was a possibility. Bottom line, we still don’t know. The health of El Jefe is officially regarded as a state secret in Cuba — no surprise, perhaps, for a charismatic leader whose myth of invulnerability has only grown as generations of world leaders have come and gone. (Castro’s 81 years old; the U.S. has had nine different presidents during his rule.) But keeping the leader’s health woes from the public is a long tradition in liberal democracies as well. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland, had his upper jaw removed in a secret cancer surgery performed on a yacht. Cleveland’s cancer wasn’t revealed until after his death many years later. (Cleveland shared Castro’s fondness for cigars, though Castro reportedly renounced his signature smokes in 1985.) A century later, in the days after Ronald Reagan was shot, “the moments recorded by television were carefully chosen and showed brief and unrepresentative intervals of lucidity and vigor in an otherwise disabled president,” Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who studies politics, wrote in his book When Illness Strikes the Leader. Still, those shadings and omissions pale in comparison to old-school cover-ups. In a story last year on the recurring rumors of Castro’s death, the Economist reported that Tibetan leaders hid the death of the fifth Dalai Lama for 15 years. And, according to legend, the Spanish warrior El Cid returned to battle after his death, his body “strapped to his horse” to terrify opponents with the mere presence of the hero.