Fidel Castro sent Cubans a sober greeting on his 80th birthday Sunday, saying he faces a long recovery from surgery — and warning they should be prepared for “adverse news.” But he encouraged them to be optimistic and said Cuba “will continue marching on perfectly well.”
As a newspaper printed the first pictures of Castro since his illness, his younger brother, Raul, made his first public appearance as Cuba’s acting president. State TV showed him at the airport greeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on his arrival to celebrate Fidel’s birthday.
Castro, who underwent surgery for an unspecified intestinal ailment that forced him to step aside as president two weeks ago, said in a statement that his health had improved, but stressed he still faced risks.
“To affirm that the recovery period will take a short time and that there is no risk would be absolutely incorrect,” said the statement in the Communist Youth newspaper, Juventud Rebelde. “I ask you all to be optimistic, and at the same time to be ready to face any adverse news.”
The Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, had offered a rosier picture of Castro’s condition on Saturday, saying he was walking and talking again, and even working a bit. It compared him to a resistant tropical hardwood tree found in eastern Cuba, where he was born.
Raul still silent
Raul Castro, 75, made no statements Sunday, maintaining the silence he’s kept since Fidel put him temporarily in charge on July 31. He is currently the island’s defense minister, and is set to rule Cuba permanently if his brother passes away or fails to regain enough strength to govern. But he’s always been in his brother’s shadow, even as he battled the government of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s and helped launch the Cuban revolution.
News of Castro’s surgery had made Cubans uneasy about the future, but a series of upbeat statements from government officials helped calm a public now facing up to the mortality of the island’s longtime leader.
Juventud Rebelde published four photographs of Castro, giving the first view of the leader since July 26, when he gave two speeches in eastern Cuba. He looked a bit tired, but sat up straight, his eyes alert.
Wearing a red, white and blue Adidas warm-up jacket — the colors of the Cuban flag — Fidel was shown talking on the phone and holding up a special birthday supplement included in the Saturday edition of the state newspaper.
The photos were credited to Estudios Revolucion, a division of Castro’s personal support group that collects historic documents and images. They seemed designed to prove he was recovering from his surgery, and there was no way to independently confirm the date or circumstances in which they were taken.
After being welcomed at the airport by Raul Castro and Vice President Carlos Lage, Chavez gave the elder Castro a dagger and a coffee cup that had belonged to South American independence fighter Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s state news service ABN said. No other details of the meeting were provided.
The normally vibrant Cuban society has appeared somewhat subdued since Castro announced his illness, with some privately expressing fears for the nation’s future. And while Castro’s assessment of his own condition was tempered, many Cubans interviewed seemed joyful to receive proof he was alive and getting around.
“What happiness I received!” exulted an elderly Margot Gomez after seeing the newspaper during a morning walk in Havana. “Long live Fidel and long live the revolution! He knows what to do to convert setbacks into victories!”
Dozens of children in the Old Havana neighborhood celebrated Castro’s birthday with a blindfolded boxing match and other games, as well as with a cake that read “Always With You Fidel.” The boys and girls cheered and shouted “Long live Fidel!” after singing “Happy Birthday” for the Cuban leader.
A leading Cuban official voiced support Sunday for both Castro brothers.
“After Fidel, Raul is the man who is in the best condition to direct the destinies of this nation, either at Fidel’s side or when he is no longer here,” Cuba’s minister for the sugar industry, Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, said while directing a crew of Foreign Ministry officials working in the fields to show support for Castro on his birthday.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin, while wishing Fidel Castro a speedy recovery, promised that Russia and Cuba would continue to be “active partners” in the future. Putin’s government has sought to revive relations with the island, which had weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bolivian president Evo Morales led about a thousand peasants in singing “Happy Birthday” to Castro outside a hospital staffed by Cuban doctors. “We will always be together. Long live Fidel, Long live Cuba!” said Morales, who vowed to bring Castro a cake made of coca flour in December.