For Cubans and others who wonder just how former President Fidel Castro is doing, the answer seems to be much, much better.
Nearly seven minutes of new video released by government-run TV Sunday showed a more robust looking Castro speaking in a firm voice with a group of recently graduated Venezuelan law students, in what the news announcer said was a three-hour meeting.
The video also offers the first full length view of Castro standing unaided seen in a long time. As in previous pictures, Castro, who celebrated his 83rd birthday August 13, is dressed casually in dark pants and a track suit jacket. Underneath he seems to be wearing a white shirt. In most previous photos he appeared to be wearing pajamas under the track suit.
Castro can be heard talking to them about one of his pet topics: global warming and his concerns for the future of the planet.
“Even the Pentagon has gotten involved,” Castro said. “It has concluded climate change among the things that threaten the security of the United States,” he told the recent graduates.
The Venezuelans presented Castro with a bright yellow hand-embroidered tee shirt, reading “Comandante” or Commander across the back. And they sang “We love you Fidel, we love you.”
Castro told them that Cuba stands by the government of President Hugo Chavez, who looks up to Castro as his mentor. He also took a pot-shot at President Barack Obama, dismissing as minimal the steps the U.S. leader has taken to improve relations with the island and saying Cuba will never give in. And in a final word of advice, he told the admiring group, “He who doesn’t believe in man – will never be a revolutionary.”
Sunday morning the communist youth paper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) published a chest-up photo of Castro with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, said to have been taken on Saturday, the day before the meeting with the students. Correa is in Cuba on a private visit. In this photo Castro is wearing a white shirt.
The encounter with the visiting Venezuelan students took place at an undisclosed location but appeared to be a room in a home, as opposed to the more sterile background that is visible in videos of Castro released earlier. At the beginning of April this year, Castro welcomed some members of a U.S. Congressional delegation including Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., into his Havana home.
A photo exhibit on the occasion of Castro's birthday included a picture said to have been taken two week earlier by his son Alex Castro. At the same time photos of Castro taken Aug. 1 were posted on the U.S. anti-embargo group Pastors for Peace Web site. As in the photo taken by his son, Castro is seen wearing a blue baseball cap and a white track suit jacket and standing with Pastors for Peace founder Lucius Walker and other members of the group.
In the video, as in the photos, Castro appears to have put on weight and his color is good.
Castro was sidelined by emergency intestinal surgery in 2006 and failed to run for president in the February 2008 elections. Since then he has faded from public sight and from the day-to-day running of the country, replaced in most Cubans' minds by his younger brother and now President Raul Castro to whom they are looking to improve the economy and their standard of living. But "retired" or not, Castro remains head of the powerful Communist Party and is believed by observers to remain very influential in any major decision-making.
There is no information on how the elder Castro spends his time beyond writing nearly 250 essays on international issues and reading extensively, if we judge by references he makes in his Web postings. However his social life appears to have picked up steam of late. Besides the meeting with Correa on Saturday and the meeting with the Venezuelan students from the University of Carabobo, he also got a birthday visit from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Speaking on his return to Caracas, Chavez said that Castro was in good health and "is in absolute use of his mental faculties".
"He looks really well," said school teacher Maria Cuevas after watching the video on the Sunday evening news. "What most struck me is how coherent he is and how strong his voice is."
Nevertheless, it’s clear from speaking to even his most ardent supporters that no one expects Fidel Castro to ever resume the hands-on-approach he was famed for during nearly 50 years in power.