Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cuba's Castro stronger in first TV interview

Cuba's leader Fidel Castro gestures during an interview on state television. Photo: AP

The Age, Australia

June 6, 2007 - 3:41PM


Cuban leader Fidel Castro looked much healthier but shed no light on his future today in his first television interview since life-threatening bowel surgery sidelined him from power 10 months go.

Castro said he was eating better, and he appeared relaxed throughout the one-hour interview on state television.

Asked if he was in good spirits, Castro replied: "Yes, yes, I am doing what I have to do. There are no secrets anymore. I have said I am eating better for the first time."

But he gave no indication that he would return to govern Cuba, saying only that he would continue writing articles called "Reflections of the Comandante" in the Cuban press.

Although his hair is greyer and his speech is slower than before his illness, the 80-year-old Castro has clearly recovered from the worst of the health crisis and was in an upbeat mood as he recalled a visit to North Vietnam in 1973 in the midst of its war with the United States.

He wore a red, white and blue track suit with a small Cuban flag on his chest for the pre-taped interview, which followed his weekend meeting with Vietnamese leader Nong Duc Manh.

True to character, Castro rambled as he read out a long list of dry statistics on energy consumption, education and public health in Vietnam.

It was his first televised interview after months of uncertainty over his fate and the future of Cuba's one-party Communist state.

There were no tough questions on his health or domestic issues but his appearance heartened some supporters.

"He has put on weight and looks much better," said Lazaro Rodriguez, watching Castro in his Havana home. "We're happy to see him recovered and about to resume duties. We need him."

Others were not so sure Castro would return to power. "It's up to the doctors," said 70-year-old Maria Cristina Torres.

In Miami, a bastion of anti-Castro sentiment among the Cuban exile community, Spanish-language channels interrupted their programming to broadcast parts of the interview live.

Castro has not been seen in his trademark olive-green military fatigues, or at all in public, since his last speech on July 26 before he was rushed to hospital.

He handed over power temporarily to his brother Raul Castro on July 31, the first time he has stepped aside since seizing power in a 1959 revolution.

The Cuban leader has appeared progressively stronger in recent video images, adding credibility to official reports that he has almost fully recovered.

He has, however, given no sign that he plans to resume day-to-day control, fuelling speculation that he will take a back-seat role as elder statesman.

Castro underwent several operations that put him close to death due to an undisclosed illness that is thought be diverticulitis, or inflamed sacs in the large intestine.

As his health has improved, Castro has written a series of 14 articles from his convalescence quarters, most of them scathing attacks on US President George W Bush.

In one article last month, Castro acknowledged that he had several operations that were not initially successful and spent "many months" being fed intravenously. He wrote that his weight was stable at 80kg.

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