HAVANA — Once again, Fidel Castro took to the airwaves to tell the world that the rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated and to poke fun at his "enemies" who spread them.
"Now that our enemies have prematurely declared me dead, I am pleased to send our compatriots and friends around the world this small film footage,” said Castro, appearing frail and thin in a 10-minute video aired this weekend on Cuban state television and seen around the world.
As he continues to recover from intestinal surgery performed some 12 weeks ago, the 80-year-old Cuban president has provided scant details of his condition, maintaining that his health status is a "state secret." This secrecy has lead to a constant stream of rumors about his illness and death both here in Cuba and abroad.
In addition, Castro has virtually disappeared from public view since the operation. His last public appearance was on July 26, just a day or two before he underwent surgery.
Every so often Castro has issued an oblique statement on his health, stating that recovery remains on schedule but not to dismiss the risks. The remarks are usually accompanied by either still photos or edited video footage.
But instead of squelching speculation, this latest appearance seems to be encouraging chatter on the island.
Lots of theories
Everyone has a theory about what ails the Cuban president. Some believe stress-induced abdominal bleeding, as the government here has insisted. Others believe cancer of the bowels or stomach.
Ivette Moreno, a public health nurse, blames stress and overwork for provoking Castro's health crisis. "He does too much and needed to slow down. His body just rebelled."
Sedema Vazquez, a retired teacher, points to his rapid weight loss of more than 40 pounds in the month following surgery. "That can only be one thing," she said, refusing to say the actual word and reflecting the general public's view that all cancer is fatal.
Fermin Martin, a sports medicine therapist, too believes the diagnosis could be cancer but that the president's age, not the disease, is his "greatest enemy.”
The cancer theory first surfaced outside of Cuba. In early August, a Brazilian newspaper reported that the Cuban leader had a form of stomach cancer that would kill him. And last month, Time Magazine's on-line Internet site cited U.S. intelligence officials who believe that Castro, in power for 47 years, was suffering from terminal cancer.
Recovering, but ‘not without risk’
Since the start of his illness, top level Cuban officials have repeatedly dismissed the notion of cancer while refusing to reveal his exact illness.
Also from day one, the Cuban government — including Castro — has insisted that recovery would be "prolonged and not without risk," but that he was proceeding on schedule.
On Saturday, Castro was seen walking for the first time on camera, albeit taking slow and halting steps. He also implied that he is slowly getting back to work, helping the people he put in temporary charge of running the country.
"I watch the news. I participate in many of the key decisions. I do all I can to support the comrades (in charge of the Party and the government). I feel satisfied," said Castro, wearing a red athletic warm-up suit.
Earlier this month, his brother Raúl, who was provisionally handed power, also dismissed rumors that the elder Castro was on his deathbed.
"He is not dying as some press in Miami report, but constantly improving," said Raúl Castro, 75. He also said that the recovery was "not without risk," but coming along as planned.
Closing ranks, a third Castro brother, Ramón, 82, told reporters that the Cuban president was "well and resting a bit," but added that he was anxious to return to work. The family, he said, was "trying to hold him back a bit longer."
Big question: What's next?
The Cuban government has said to expect Castro back in the public eye by December with his first appearance scheduled for December 2 during a military parade in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. In the meantime, the island's leaders say it's business as usual.
Despite those assurances, many Cubans say Castro, along with the country, will never be the same.
"People are concerned," said Oswaldo Payá, who has spent his life opposing Castro's politics. "His illness has forced us to face the reality of change. There are no hysterics but people are asking what comes next."