CUBAN PRESIDENT Fidel Castro, who ruled a communist country on the doorstep of the US for nearly 50 years, stepped down temporarily after intestinal surgery and handed over power to his brother Raul, state television announced on Monday night.
It was the first time Castro, who will be 80 on August 13, handed over the reins of power since he took office in 1959.
The news sparked street dancing in the Cuban exile district of Miami where Castro's enemies, backed by the US, yearn for the demise of the West's only communist government.
In Cuba, it brought uncertainty over the political future of the nation.
Castro said in a statement — read out on TV by his personal aide — that he overexerted himself this month on a trip to a summit of South American leaders in Argentina and celebrations of his 1953 assault on a military garrison. "This caused an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obliged me to face a complicated surgical operation," he said.
"The operation obliges me to remain for several weeks resting, away from my responsibilities and duties."
Castro gave the reins of the Communist Party, the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and president of the executive council of state to the 75-year-old Raul.
Castro's health has been an issue since he fainted during a speech in 2001.
The US declined to speculate on Castro's health. "We're monitoring the situation. We continue to work for the day when Cuba is free," a White House spokesman said.