By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published August 13, 2006
HAVANA -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has announced that he will fly to Cuba to celebrate Fidel Castro's 80th birthday Sunday with the ailing leader.
Saturday's announcement came the same day that the Cuban Communist Party newspaper gave the most upbeat assessment of Castro's health since he announced July 31 that he had undergone surgery and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother, Raul.
The article in Granma said Castro is walking, talking and sitting up, as well as undergoing physical therapy.
"A friend tells us that just a few hours ago, upon visiting the Comandante, who was briefly taking care of some business, he witnessed some good news that he enthusiastically summed up in one sentence: `The caguairan has risen,'" the report began.
The friend was not identified in the article. A caguairan is a hardwood tree from eastern Cuba known for its strength.
The report went on to say that Castro, "after receiving a little physical therapy, took some steps in his room and then, seated in a chair, conversed animatedly."
Castro has not appeared in public since the surgery. A handful of top Cuban officials suggested Castro was recuperating but offered few details.
Some Cubans expressed skepticism about the newspaper report.
"I don't know if it's true," said one Havana resident who asked not to be identified out of fear of government retribution. "We have to wait until we see him."
A visit by Chavez raises the possibility that the two men will appear in public, or at least be seen together on television.
Such images could go a long way toward easing--or heightening--the fear and doubt in this nation nearly two weeks after Castro's illness was announced.
"Tomorrow I will be with Fidel celebrating his 80th birthday," Chavez said Saturday in Caracas. "I'll take him a nice gift, a good cake, and we'll be celebrating the 80 years of this great figure of America and our history."
Authorities had planned elaborate celebrations for Castro's birthday, but they have been postponed.