Dictators Who Kept Their Dire Health Scares Secret From Their Countries

By Jacob Shelton

(Warren K. Leffler/Wikimedia Commons)

Whether they're ruthless warlords or seemingly benevolent monochrome jumpsuit enthusiasts, all dictators want to be seen as invincible, but that's just not the way life goes. Illness and death are equally as certain as a dictator's belief in his own mortality. In fact, to hear them tell it, some of these dictators who kept their illnesses secret might still be alive.

No One Knows What Killed Fidel Castro

Few dictators have carried on as lengthy of an illness shell game as Fidel Castro. Until his death, the imposing military leader gave misleading answers about his health, even when he was clearly not well. Even his personal physician claimed that he could live as long as 140 years old, but he underwent emergency intestinal surgery in 2006 before disappearing from view four years. The Cuban government has never confirmed Castro's condition, but it's believed that he was dealing with complications related to diverticulitis, an intestinal ailment common in the elderly. In a 2010 interview, Castro opened up about his health, but even that response is cagey:

I was at death's door, but I came back. Laid out in that bed, I could only see what was around me, machines I did not understand. I didn't know how long this torment would continue. The only thing I could hope for was that the world would stop. But I recovered.

He passed away six years later, and his cause of death has never been disclosed.

(World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons)

Or Meles Zenawi

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed away in 2012, it came as a shock to everyone on the world stage. He allegedly suffered from a stomach illness for quite some time and disappeared from the public weeks before he passed away, but all we really know is that he had an infection of some kind and died in a hospital in Brussels.

(VOA News/Wikimedia Commons)

Xi Jinping's Secret Heart Attack

After Xi Jinping assumed the role of leader of China's Communist Party in 2012, he disappeared from public view for weeks, with varying reports that he was receiving treatment for back pain or a heart condition. Some diplomats heard that Xi had only pulled a muscle, while one report stated that he was injured in an auto accident that may have been a "revenge plot." The real reason was much more common: He'd suffered a mild heart attack.

(Dilma Rousseff/Wikimedia Commons)

Hugo Chavez's Mystery Cancer

Leading up to his final days in 2013, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez never gave a straight answer about his illness. After traveling to Cuba multiple times in 2011 and 2012 to undergo surgery for a "pelvic abscess,” he claimed to be completely cancer-free, although he went back to the country later that year for hyberbaric oxygen treatment.

Chavez's people never explained exactly what kind of illness he suffered from, but the most common theories were prostate and colon cancer. The disinformation chain continued as his cancer metastasized during his reelection campaign. He passed away on March 5, 2013.

(Busua/Wikimedia Commons)

John Atta Mills's Telltale Voice

Ghana President John Atta Mills battled throat cancer for years, but he and his people never spoke about the illness unless they were appearing in the media to say that the whole thing was a sham. The only clue the public had that something was up was the noticeable deterioration of his voice, which sparked rumors that his administration simply kept denying. It got considerably harder to keep up the act once Mills passed away suddenly in 2012.

Guinea-Bissau's President Malam Bacai Sanha had a long running diabetes scare 

(Roosewelt Pinheiro/Wikimedia Commons)

Malam Bacai Sanha Downplayed His Diabetes

The key to assessing when a dictator is about to kick the bucket is taking note of when they leave the country for medical treatment. In 2012, 64-year-old President Malam Bacai Sanha of Guinea-Bissau traveled to France after becoming gravely ill, although his illness was never disclosed to the public. It's believed that he suffered from diabetes, but like many dictators from smaller countries, Sanha flew under the radar and carried on dictating.

(National Archives of Malawi/Wikimedia Commons)

No One Even Knew How Old Hastings Kamuzu Banda Was

When Malawi President Hastings Kamuzu Banda passed away in 1997, the people were unsure not just what did him in but even his actual age. He was believed to be 99 when he succumbed to respiratory failure in Johannesburg, but he had no birth record and stubbornly refused all requests to set the record straight. Officially, his birthday was May 14, 1906, but who knows when he was really born?

In 1993, he underwent brain surgery, and four years later, he came down with a fever and pneumonia. No one knew until it was too late.

(Koen Suyk/Anefo/Wikimedia Commons)

Rumors Of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's Death Were Greatly Exaggerated

In 2014, the people of Zimbabwe were pretty sure President Robert Mugabe was dead even though he was still technically president, so you can imagine the confusion when he appeared for the first time in weeks at his sister's funeral. His underlings had been so tight-lipped about the circumstances of his absence that many assumed he had either secretly died or would soon. They were so sure that when he showed up in person, they didn't believe that it was actually him.

Three years later, he was removed in a military coup and allowed to live out the rest of his life in custody, albeit the kind of custody where you live in a five-bedroom house with a full staff and armed guards. He actually passed away in 2019 from an undisclosed illness.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.