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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro is back in the news. Earlier this week, John Negroponte, director of National Intelligence, said Castro is very ill and close to death, that claim is denied by Cuban authorities.

A 10-member congressional delegation, the largest to ever visit Cuba just wrapped up a trip last weekend. They were unable to meet with either Fidel Castro or his brother, Raul. Raul's been the interim leader since Castro's surgery for internal bleeding last July. There's no word on Castro's physical ailment this time.

Gary Marx is the Havana bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. He says Cubans aren't hearing U.S. claims that Castro may be near death.

Mr. GARY MARX (Chicago Tribune): Generally speaking, the Cubans have been very upset about it. I mean they are insisting that, you know, Fidel is recuperating from an unnamed illness. And so I think word coming out of Washington that he has months and not years to live has infuriated the Cubans. But they're in a position now, where they're just providing no information about his health condition and therefore, you know, rumors are just flying free right now.

CHIDEYA: Can you give us a little recap of the Cuban leader's health over the past few months?

Mr. MARX: At the end of July, he announced that he had undergone a major intestinal surgery. It was not specified what exactly he had and that he was handing over power temporarily to his brother, Raul Castro, the nation's long-time defense minister. But since then there's been very little information about him; we've seen a couple of videos.

But the last pictures we saw, the last images was October 28th, and it was a video that showed him very weak, and in fact, disoriented. And since then we see nothing.

CHIDEYA: Tell us who Raul Castro is in terms of temperament, power. At this point, is Fidel Castro, despite these videos and images of him being very ill, is he still really in power or is Raul Castro in power?

Mr. MARX: Well, the general feeling is Fidel is still there, but he's really more of a check on any changes. And the power is really passed to Raul and some generals that are loyal to him. Raul really is a military guy and he's very much an organizational person. You have to understand though, Farai, he's 75 years old. How much longer is he going to last? So the feeling is Raul Castro, even if he takes over, is really a transitional figure.

CHIDEYA: Now, I visited Cuba several years ago on a reporting trip and people on the island seemed to have a very different view of Fidel Castro than Cuban immigrants in the United States.

So even when Cubans in Cuba were critical of the president they saw him as a force resisting international imperialism. How do Cubans, these days, assess their leader?

Mr. MARX: There are some Cubans on the island who absolutely hate him. There's a small percentage that absolutely love him. Most have a very, very mixed feeling. I mean Fidel Castro is a towering figure in the world. He has put Cuba on the map, and at least, in the first several decades of the revolution made major changes in education and healthcare, and things like that.

But over the last several decades the country really has gone downhill, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And I think a lot of people are very disappointed that he hasn't made the sort of economic changes that would make lives easier for most Cubans.

CHIDEYA: If Cuba goes through a transition of leadership, will there be any talk of Cubans in the U.S. returning to Cuba and making a play for power?

Mr. MARX: You know, I think that's a non-starter. People here are very united in that sense. They feel like this is their island, the immigrants have made their lives somewhere else, and they do not have a say in the future of this country.

CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, Gary Marx, thank you so much.

Mr. MARX: Thanks, Farai. It was a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Gary Marx is the Havana bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. He joined us from Cuba.

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