updated 12/17/2006 9:37:36 PM ET 2006-12-18T02:37:36

Cuban officials told a group of visiting U.S. lawmakers that Fidel Castro does not have cancer or a terminal illness in the most comprehensive denial yet of rampant rumors about the ailing leader’s health, the head of the U.S. delegation said Sunday.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said Cuban officials did not provide further details on the 80-year-old leader’s health, but did say he will eventually return to public life.

“All the officials have told us that his illness is not cancer, nor is it terminal, and he will be back,” Flake told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Castro’s medical condition has been a state secret since he underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding in late July and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raul Castro. He has not been seen publicly since July 26.

Cuban officials have repeatedly insisted the elder Castro is recovering, and Vice President Carlos Lage previously dismissed reports that the leader was suffering from stomach cancer. But officials have not publicly denied rumors that he could have another type of cancer or some other terminal illness.

U.S. officials have said they believe Castro suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and will not live through the end of 2007. Some U.S. doctors have speculated he could have a colon condition called diverticulosis, which is relatively common among the elderly.

Castro failed to appear at his own delayed birthday celebrations earlier this month, prompting new speculation that he was on his deathbed.

Talk of Cuba post-Fidel is guarded
Raul Castro has appeared increasingly confident in his new role, but officials have been cautious when it comes to talking about a post-Fidel era.

“They were more guarded than I expected about any suggestion that there might be any substantive change economically and politically,” Flake, who supports lifting the U.S. embargo and travel ban on Cuba, said of Cuban officials.

The group of 10 lawmakers arrived Friday and has met with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon and Basic Industries Minister Yadira Garcia. They had not met with Raul Castro as of Sunday afternoon, and no longer expected to.

“We had hoped to meet with Raul, but that is not going to happen,” said Flake, on his fifth trip to the island. “It seems that the Cuban government may not be ready to say that the new era has begun, and perhaps that meeting would suggest that.”

“The party line is that Fidel is coming back, which ... creates a sort of vacuum,” Rep. Jane Harman of California said at a news conference Sunday.

The younger Castro has nonetheless asserted himself, calling on two occasions for normalized relations and improved dialogue with the United States.

Trade embargo bolstered under Bush
In recent years, the Bush administration has intensified the U.S. trade embargo and other policies aimed at squeezing the island’s economy and undermining Cuba’s communist leaders.

Bush administration officials have twice rejected offers to talk with Cuban officials since Fidel Castro fell ill, saying that the country must first hold free and competitive elections and release all political prisoners.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday the lawmakers’ trip would have no effect on official U.S. policy toward Cuba.

“This divide over whether or not to have an embargo on Cuba or to lift it, it’s a debate that’s been going on for some time. We understand that there are some in Congress who have a very different view. As a matter of policy, we of course have an opposite view from the folks that are down there today,” he said.

Lawmaker sees ‘golden opportunity’
The U.S. lawmakers in Havana said issues of human rights and economic freedom are important to them, but that it is time for the two countries to find creative ways to solve their differences.

“I think this is the golden opportunity (for talks) ... especially as we make a transition in Washington,” said Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., referring to his party’s upcoming takeover of Congress. “This should be a dialogue in which we talk to one another, not at one another.”

On Friday, Fidel Castro telephoned a meeting of provincial legislative leaders, the Communist Party daily said Saturday in a report apparently aimed at quelling rumors about the leader’s health. That call and another to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the same day constituted the first news in 11 days about the convalescing Cuban leader.

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