Wed, Aug 16, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Fidel Castro shown in video along with brother and Chavez

POIGNANT The footage may have assuaged fears that the Cuban leader had died, but it also served to underline his increasing fragility

AP , HAVANA

Cuban President Fidel Castro appeared tired yet alert in a video with his younger brother and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the first footage of the bedridden Cuban leader since he stepped aside as president two weeks ago.

The video, shown on Monday on state-run TV, appeared aimed at dispelling doubts that Castro was still alive after surgery for intestinal bleeding. It also showed a vulnerable and affectionate side of the Cuban leader, who clasped Chavez's hands and looked warmly at his friend and ally.

Chavez gave an optimistic report of the leader's health later on Monday after traveling to Jamaica, where he told reporters in Montego Bay that Castro "will recover sooner than we hoped."

Castro had not been seen publicly since July 26, and Cuban officials haven't released details of his condition or disclosed where he's being treated. The mystery surrounding his illness has worried some Cubans that he might be worse off than authorities were telling them.

But with the video and two days of fresh photographs published in state-run newspapers, Castro supporters said they felt more confident about his chance of survival.

"He's made of iron," Havana resident Felipe Sanchez said of the leader, who turned 80 on Sunday. "It looks like the worst has passed, which many of us weren't sure would happen."

In the video, Castro's voice was inaudible as he bantered back and forth with his brother and Chavez, clearly enjoying himself. He was later shown in animated conversation with Chavez, but music played over his words.

Castro has seemed to become larger than life in his nearly 50 years in power. He's generally seen shaking his fist in the air, leading huge marches or giving long speeches, and iconic images of a younger, more vital leader frequently appear in Cuba's state-run media. But recent images show a more frail man.

"I was thinking the worst before," said 37-year-old Ernesto Fundora, who works at a tobacco factory. "Now I don't have any doubt that he's alive. But still, he could go at any minute."

Even just a few years ago, Castro's health -- and especially his death -- were taboo subjects.

Many now say they expect him to be around awhile yet, but with this latest illness, few still insist he'll live forever.

Castro's surgery was announced on July 31, when he temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raul Castro, who is defense minister and his constitutional successor.

Whether Castro gets back on his feet or permanently cedes control to Raul, some say they expect much to remain the same.

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