Image: Fidel Castro
Cuban leader Fidel Castro is shown on Cuban television station Cubavision in bed at a hospital on Sunday in Havana, Cuba.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 8/15/2006 2:20:22 PM ET 2006-08-15T18:20:22

The Cuban people got their first view of Fidel Castro since he stepped down as president on July 31.

At best, popular reaction here to the video is mixed. While people are relieved that Castro’s image was finally published, they are shocked at his weak appearance.

Video aired on Cuban state television showed Castro bedridden, frail and weak but joking with younger brother, Raúl, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close political ally and friend. Chavez flew to town Sunday, August 13th, to celebrate Castro’s 80th birthday.

Earlier in the day, the Granma newspaper, published by the Cuban Communist Party, printed photos of Castro from that same bedside visit. That alarmed people since just the day before a report on Castro’s health indicated that he was “walking, talking, sitting up and being briefed”.

While the video seemed aimed at reassuring the Cuban people that Castro was not on his deathbed as he recovered from the emergency abdominal surgery he underwent almost three weeks ago, it left many with the opposite impression.

“Alarm” is how Dr. Luisa Matilde described her reaction to Monday night’s video. “He looks like he could die at any moment.”

‘Praying for him’
While Castro is alert in the video filmed and edited by the Cuban Council of State, he was shown propped up in his hospital bed, speaking with a barely audible voice. He also seems to have lost considerable weight on his over 6 foot frame.

A cluster of chambermaids at Havana’s 5-star Hotel Nacional became emotional as they and tourists watched the television in a cigar lounge. After the video aired, a number had teary eyes.

“I am praying for him,” said Nanci Alonso, 26.

“What will Cuba do without him?” raised another young worker who asked not to publish her name.

Even with plans to emigrate to the U.S. later this year, she is like many living on this island — worried that Castro’s death will leave a power vacuum that will be hard to fill and making life more difficult for the family she is leaving behind.

Like 70 percent of the Cuban population, she was born after Castro’s revolution swept to power in 1959.

‘Difficult surgical procedure’
For many, the idea of someone else leading this island is not only inconceivable but unnerving.

A hotel parking attendant doubts the ailing president will ever be back at his desk. “If he survives he will have to retire”.

Luis Miranda, a flower vendor, echoed similar sentiments. “I bet he has cancer.”
He is not the only one to think that.

Reporters posed that question to Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage last week when he flew to Bolivia on state business.

“Fidel does not have cancer,” he insisted. “He is recuperating from a difficult surgical procedure.” Lage even insisted that Castro will be back at work “in a few weeks”.

‘Sooner than we hoped’
Over the weekend Ricardo Alarcon, Cuban Parliament president and a close Castro confidante, told NBC News that EL Comandante was improving and anxious to get back to work.

While reporters in Cuba had no access to Chavez during his brief stay, he did make a press statement after leaving the island. Castro “will recover sooner than we hoped”. He also indicated that Castro’s surgery triggered “extraordinarily difficult moments” but that the worst has passed.

While Cubans seem anxious to believe those kinds of optimistic statements underscoring Castro’s recovery, pictures speak louder than word… and making matters worst--the words are few in coming.

The Cuban government has still not released specific information about Castro’s ailment or what operation he underwent.

Mary Murray is an NBC News Producer based in Havana, Cuba.

Video: Castro recorded talking, joking


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