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Castro hands power to brother during surgery

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Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul are pictured in 2004.

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HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuban President Fidel Castro was undergoing intestinal surgery and provisionally handed over power in the Communist island nation to his younger brother Raul, according to a statement read on Cuban television Monday night.

Fidel Castro, 79, has led Cuba since a 1959 revolution. Raul Castro, 75, is the first vice president of the country, and as such, the designated successor to his brother.

Castro's secretary, Carlos Balenciago, read a letter he said was from the president in which he said stress had forced him into surgery and that he would be in bed for several weeks after the operation was complete. Castro turns 80 on August 13.

Raul Castro also assumes control over the armed forces and the leadership of the Communist Party, according to the statement.

Last week, Fidel Castro joked that he had no plans to still hold power when he turns 100, Reuters reported. (Full story)

Castro's surgery came just weeks after a U.S. government report called for the United States to have assistance in Cuba within weeks of Castro's death to support a transitional government and help move the country toward democracy. (Full story)

The report was prepared by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, an interagency group co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American.

President Bush created the commission in 2003 to "help hasten and ease Cuba's democratic transition," according to its Web site.

The United States and Cuba, which have no formal diplomatic relations, are constantly at odds, but tensions between the two countries have increased in the past year.

Earlier this month, the Cuban government cut off electricity to the U.S. interests section in Havana, the capital. The State Department said requests to have the power restored went unanswered for several days.

Cuba was accused by the State Department of engaging in "bully tactics" to thwart pro-democracy efforts in the country.

The Bush administration already has tightened the four-decades-old U.S. embargo of the island, increased Radio Marti news broadcasts into Cuba, curtailed visits home by Cuban-Americans and limited the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send to relatives.

In September, Bush appointed Caleb McCarry, a former Republican staff member of the House International Relations Committee, as Cuba transition coordinator -- or point man on regime change in Cuba. The position was among the commission's earlier recommendations.

Castro's rise to power

Fidel Castro led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1953, after which he was sentenced to 15 years in prison alongside his brother Raul.

They were released less than two years later as part of an amnesty for political prisoners, and both went into exile in Mexico and the United States.

In Mexico, they met the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara and organized a group of Cuban exiles into a new guerilla group.

After a near disastrous landing in Cuba, the remnants of the group -- including the Castros and Guevara -- fled to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, from which they waged a guerilla war against the Batista government.

Castro's forces succeeded in overthrowing the regime on January 1, 1959. The next day, Manuel Urrutia was named president and Jose Mira Cardona was appointed vice president. Six weeks later, Fidel Castro took over as prime minister.

Urrutia resigned in July 1959, and Castro completed his rise to power in Cuba, which became the first Communist country in the Western Hemisphere.

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