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Castro appears healthier in taped interview

Fidel Castro looked alert and healthier during an hour-long interview taped and aired on Cuban television Friday, responding to rumors of his death with a defiant “here I am.”
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fidel Castro looked alert and healthier during an hour-long interview taped and aired on Cuban television Friday, responding to rumors of his death with a defiant “here I am.”

In the first video of the ailing 81-year-old revolutionary seen in more than three months, a pale Castro stayed seated the entire time, spoke slowly and softly and didn’t always look the interviewer in the eye. But he appeared to be thinking clearly.

The Cuban leader said he thought the Bush administration could go to war with Iran and bemoaned the high cost of the war in Iraq, but provided no new details about his health, except to say, “Well, here I am.”

Mocking rumors of his death that have circulated in Miami and elsewhere in the United States, he said “they say ’I was dying’ and ‘if I die’ and ‘I will die the day after tomorrow’ or something.”

“Nobody knows the day they are going to die,” said Castro, who was forced to cede power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006 following emergency intestinal surgery. He has not appeared in public since.

Early in the interview, Castro often trailed off mid-sentence, and needed some prompting by the interviewer. He had bags under his eyes, sunken cheeks and his thin gray beard looked as wispy as ever. But he appeared to get stronger and more comfortable as time passed.

Castro cites recent events
The video’s release came as a surprise. Cuban officials broke into regularly scheduled programming only minutes before the video was broadcast to announce that a “conversation” with Castro would be shown. They said the interview was taped Friday.

Backing up the assertion, Castro mentioned recent prices of oil and the value of the euro against the dollar. He also discussed an essay he signed that was published in state media on Wednesday.

“Yesterday the euro was at $1.41. Oil I think about $84 a barrel,” Castro said.

He also held up a copy of the new book by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World.” At one point he quoted from it, reading excerpted passages in very large type instead of using the book itself.

The Cuban leader wore a red, blue and white jumpsuit with “F. Castro” in small block letters.

“They criticize me” for wearing the tracksuit, Castro joked. But he said he was “not looking for anything elegant.”

Leader's condition, location unknown
Castro’s condition and exact ailment are state secrets, though he wrote in one of his many essays that he had undergone multiple surgeries, at least one of which went poorly. He is recovering in an undisclosed location.

For months, official photographs and videos were released to show Castro’s recovery, but no new images had surfaced since he appeared in an interview on Cuban television June 5.

Arnaldo Fuster, who watched the Castro interview with his wife and children in his old Havana home, said he thought the Cuban leader looked better in the latest video.

“He’s whole. He’s better, I think, than ever,” Fuster said. “He’s old, but he’s whole. His memory is normal, he looks normal.”

Skepticism, disappointment
But in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, people greeted the Castro video with a mixture of skepticism and disappointment. Some doubted the tape was made on Friday.

“Could be six months ago. Could be one year ago,” said Cuban-born Victoria Martinez, 76, of Hollywood, Fla., who called the leader’s talk “incoherent.”

Although there are frequent rumors of Castro’s demise, they had reached a fever pitch in Miami last month after the leader’s 81st birthday came without any news.

Marivi Garces, 47, who left Cuba when she was 8-years-old, said of the Cuban government, “Everything they do is manipulated.”

“It could be six months ago, but they still keep it fresh,” she said. “We can’t trust him.”

Evidence of recovery?
Earlier Friday, Vice President Carlos Lage told reporters that the essays Castro has signed every few days since late March are evidence that his health is strong.

“Fidel continues to recuperate. It’s a productive recuperation as we can see in the press,” said Lage, apparently referring to the publication in state newspapers of Castro’s “Reflections of the Commander in Chief.”

Also Friday, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said that “Fidel is recovering with discipline and I think that he’s having a productive work period — reading, studying, writing and keeping up with and participating in the country’s principal decisions.”

In Venezuela, ally President Hugo Chavez started a speech with an announcement that Castro was speaking on Cuban state television. “A long life to Fidel and the Cuban revolution,” he shouted.

Earlier while traveling in Brazil, Chavez said Castro was “close to death” but underwent several operations and has regained weight.

Castro had “three operations, and he’s 81, imagine that. They changed almost all the blood with transfusions. Fidel is alive because he is Fidel,” Chavez said.