By ANITA SNOW | Associated Press Writer
Cuban President Fidel Castro tripped and fell after leaving the stage at a graduation ceremony, fracturing a knee and arm but later returning to say that he was “all in one piece.”
Castro’s off-camera tumble after a Wednesday night speech in the central city of Santa Clara was certain to launch a new round of speculation about the 78-year-old communist leader’s health after 45 years of rule.
A medical examination early Thursday confirmed that Castro suffered a broken left knee and a hairline fracture in his upper right arm, said an official notice read early Thursday on state television. Castro asked that the note be made public, the statement said.
Castro spoke live on state television Wednesday night less than a minute after his fall, telling viewers across the island of 11.2 million peoples that he felt like he had broken his knee and perhaps his arm — “but I am all in one piece.”
“I will do what is possible to recover as fast as possible, but as you can see I can still talk,” he said, sweating profusely into his olive green uniform as he sat in a folding chair. “Even if they put me in a cast, I can continue in my work.”
An Associated Press photographer at the scene said Castro tripped on a concrete step after he finished walking down the stairs from the stage, then fell onto the ground on his right side, first hitting his knee and hip and then his elbow and arm.
He was immediately surrounded by scores of security agents and others who rushed to help him up.
The note aired Thursday morning said Castro express thanks “for the innumerable expressions of concern and solidarity from the people.”
“His general health is good, and is in excellent spirits,” the note said. “He asked for calm, considering that very soon he will be back in place.”
Castro was earlier seen leaving Santa Clara, about a three-hour drive east of Havana, in his regular black Mercedes Benz sedan.
Television viewers could not see what happened after Castro wrapped up the speech at a graduation ceremony for arts instructors. Television viewers only saw several of his security men running off to the side, evidently to assist him.
As he has grown older, Castro’s knees have seemed more wobbly, his step less steady. Nevertheless, he maintains a busy schedule that frequently includes all-night meetings with aides and visitors.
Castro’s health has long been closely watched ó particularly by his political enemies in Miami, home to a large Cuban exile community.
Such speculation was particularly fierce three years ago when he apparently fainted during a speech under a scorching Caribbean summer sun before a crowd of thousands.
Many people burst into tears after watching Cuba’s commander in chief start to collapse behind the podium several hours into that speech on June 23, 2001.
Castro returned minutes later to assure people in the audience ó and millions more watching it live on television ó that he was fine.
But the incident prompted many average Cubans to reflect for the first time on their leader’s mortality and the future of their country after he dies.
The Wednesday night incident seemed far less serious.
Castro on Wednesday asked Cubans to forgive him for “any suffering this may have caused.”
Castro noted the presence of international photographers and television camera crews at the event.
“The international press has captured it and surely tomorrow it will be on the front pages of the newspapers,” said Castro.
He then encouraged those at the event to continue with their televised musical program, which they did.