A video of Fidel Castro aired by state television Tuesday evening has bolstered claims by officials and a Spanish doctor that the ailing Cuban president is not at death's door but on the mend.
The 80-year-old Castro, who temporarily handed power to his younger brother and defense minister, Raul Castro, six months ago to undergo abdominal surgery, appeared stronger than in a previous video aired three months ago. He also has put on weight.
The five-minute video showed Castro in a red, white and blue track suit standing, sitting, sipping juice and talking animatedly with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during an unannounced visit to Havana on Monday.
Months of Rumors
Castro's illness and whereabouts have been a carefully guarded secret, spawning nonstop rumors and speculation over the condition of the historic, if controversial, bearded figure.
"He is in good condition. Within the confines of doctor-patient privilege, I can say President Castro is not suffering from a malignant condition," Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido, head of surgery at Madrid's Gregorio Maranon public hospital, told a news conference in December after examining Castro.
"He does not have cancer," Sabrido said. "He has a problem with his digestive system. … And has suffered complications."
However, the Spanish newspaper El Pais, citing sources at Sabrido's hospital, reported earlier this month that three botched operations had left Castro suffering from the deterioration of his large intestine. It was reported that Castro was in grave condition and being fed intravenously, a claim Sabrido denied.
Tuesday's five-minute video was carefully edited from what was reported to be a two-hour meeting with Chavez, Castro's closest ally and designated Latin American revolutionary successor.
"Fidel has said that we have not lost this battle," Chavez said in the video. "I'll say something more: We have won it."
Happiness by Castro Supporters, Skepticism in Miami
Chavez said he felt "happiness, jubilation, to find Fidel as I have found him" and thanked "everyone -- the relatives, comrades, doctors, nurses for the great effort they are making."
The video was enthusiastically received by Castro supporters on the island.
"The man is in good shape. Once again you have to admit he is a horse," retiree Remberto Machin said in a phone interview from central Camaguey province.
However, it put a damper on recently announced plans by his Cuban-American foes in Miami to celebrate his death at the Orange Bowl. Miami television stations interviewed a number of Cuban-Americans who insisted the video was a fake.
Looking to a New, Younger Generation for Cuba's Future
Western governments agree a transfer of daily governance to 75-year-old Raul has taken place. With Fidel Castro still alive, though, it is hard to say what, if any, changes can be expected.
"Even though he has now been sidelined by illness, Fidel remains the Cuban government's most valuable political asset," said Cuba expert Dan Erickson of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue policy group. "Outsiders consistently confuse the respect that Cubans have for Fidel with broader public support for the Cuban system, which has dropped precipitously in recent years."
"The following two years might very well be not exclusively under Raul, but a shared interim administration with Fidel weighing in on key decisions," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who defected in the early 1990s and now teaches college in Florida.
In today's communist Cuba, Amuchastegui said, the vast majority of national party and government leaders are in their 40s and 50s. New generations are also in control of much of the existing power structure and its institutions across the country.
Cuba's new leaders will emerge from those younger generations, even though it is unclear who will lead the pack. Two key political events over the next 18 months, barring Castro's death, should shed some light on the future of Cuba's leadership.
The Cuban Communist Party is reportedly preparing a congress for later this year or in 2008. Elections for a new national assembly, which in turn will pick a Council of State, which names the president and first vice president, are scheduled for 2008.
The party congress is the most important political event in a country where all other political parties are banned and where the constitution says it guides policy.
The congress will set a political and economic course, and elect a new political bureau. The bureau will name a first and second secretary for at least the following five years, with Castro expected to step aside, if he is still alive, perhaps to be replaced by Raul, or someone else.
The party-orchestrated national elections for the single body National Assembly and new Council of State in 2008 may well produce a new president without the last name of Castro for the first time in almost half a century.
That is, if Cuba's constitution is not changed first, a possibility mentioned by many experts to create a figurehead position for at least one of the Castro brothers, and perhaps a prime minister-led government.