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Ailing Castro unable to speak in public

Fidel Castro looked frail but alert and even playful in a series of official photographs taken during a meeting with Brazil's president on Tuesday.
Image: Fidel Castro and Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva
Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, confers with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva on Tuesday in Havana.AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fidel Castro said Wednesday he is not yet healthy enough to speak to Cuba’s masses in person and can’t campaign for Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

“I am not physically able to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections next Sunday,” the ailing 81-year-old wrote in an essay published Wednesday by state news media.

Castro’s latest essay focused on blasting President Bush, but included references to the Cuban leader’s health.

It was published on the front pages of state-run newspapers a day after Castro met for more than two hours with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who said he thought Castro appeared healthy enough to return to politics.

“I think Fidel is ready to take to take over his historic political role in this globalized world, in humanity,” Silva told reporters as he left Cuba late Tuesday.

Castro has not been seen in public since July 2006, when emergency intestinal surgery forced him to cede power to a provisional government headed by his brother Raul, five years his junior.

“My feeling is that Fidel is in very good health, that he’s as lucid as he’s ever been,” Silva said.

Castro, however, expressed frustration in his essay: “I do what I can: I write. For me, this is a new experience: writing is not the same as speaking.”

Frail but alert leader
Castro looked frail but alert and even playful in a series of official photographs taken during a meeting with Brazil's president on Tuesday, the first images of the ailing Cuban leader released in about three months.

Wearing a tracksuit and tennis shoes that have become his trademark since he fell ill, Castro is seen seated and grinning, his beard well-trimmed and his hair combed as he talks with Silva. In some images, he is seen pretending to snap pictures with a small camera.

Taken in an undisclosed location, the photographs were given to reporters as Silva left Cuba, concluding a 24-hour visit. They were the first photos of Castro since October, when he met with his good friend and socialist ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

After their meeting, Silva said politicians were like athletes, possessing a need to stay active. He said he felt Castro "would soon take on a political role in Cuba," and while he provided no specifics, he may have been hinting that Castro could continue as head of Cuba's supreme governing body, the Council of State, rather than retiring.

Offer of credit
Castro remains head of the council and is running in parliamentary elections Sunday, a necessary step if he is to hold on to Cuba's top post.

His condition and exact ailment are state secrets, though he has met behind closed doors several times with Chavez and released essays on an array of topics that appear in state-run media. Castro has also met with Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega and officials from China, Vietnam and Angola.

Tuesday's meeting was a surprise ending to a visit during which Silva, a friend of Castro, offered the communist government millions of dollars in credit and signed a deal to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

It had been unclear whether Silva would see Castro in person right up until the meeting actually began.

Brazil-Cuba ties
Earlier, Silva signed accords extending Cuba credits that strengthened ties between Latin America's largest economy and the government of Raul Castro, despite Washington's nearly 50-year-old trade embargo against the island. He also signed a deal for Brazil's state energy company, Petrobras, to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

The credits will provide favorable Brazilian financing for construction projects and pharmaceutical and agricultural initiatives and show that Silva's visit wasn't simply a chance for him to check on Castro, said Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank near Washington.

"Lula decided this is not going to be a farewell visit to Fidel. It's a vote of confidence to Raul," Peters said. "Brazil is going out of its way not just to make a visit that conveys political support, but to put substantial economic resources on the table."

Foreign Ministry officials in Brasilia suggested that food credits alone would total $100 million, although the agreements themselves did not specify how much financing Brazil will provide.

Silva traveled with four Cabinet ministers and Petrobras chief Jose Sergio Gabrielli, who formalized plans for exploratory deep-water drilling for crude oil off Cuba's coast and for a lubricant factory on the island.

Cuban Gulf waters could contain large quantities of crude, and Spanish, Canadian, Indian and Malaysian companies have already signed contracts to explore the area. The U.S. trade embargo prohibits U.S. companies from investing in the area.

Tuesday's accords were another blow to U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba with trade sanctions, Peters said. "It's the latest sign that the rest of the world completely disagrees with the U.S approach to Cuba."