Havana Spins Revamp of Fidel Castro Brand

A few months ago the gardener at the home of a Canadian diplomat looked out toward the street as he trimmed the hedges in the afternoon. An old man was walking toward the residence in a track suit who bore a remarkable resemblance to Fidel Castro. The man stopped, came over, stuck his arm through the gate to shake hands and chat for a few minutes.

It had been two and a half years since Castro disappeared from public view after undergoing a number of major abdominal surgeries that forced him to resign as president. But there was no mistaking who the tall, thin guy with a grey beard, Roman nose and distinctive voice was, even out of uniform.

The iconic figure's surprise appearance on the street came as speculation once more swirled that his health had taken a turn for the worse. His regular writings for the local media, begun two years earlier, had stopped for more than a month beginning in mid-December 2008.

Castro managed to write just 18 words to mark the 50th anniversary of his revolution on Jan. 1, 2009, and he failed to receive the president of Ecuador soon after.

"The residence is near Castro's home in the Siboney neighborhood," a Canadian diplomat said. "Perhaps the Cubans wanted to let the world know, and especially the United States and President Barack Obama, that he is in shape for the next round."

This year Havana spin masters are indeed projecting a brand new image of Fidel Castro. He is no longer gravely ill in a hospital or clinic, but at home, semi-retired and backing his brother Raul's leadership of the country 100 percent, at least in public. And there is little doubt that the image is in fact true.

Castro may not be "walking the streets of Havana" as his friend and ally Hugo Chavez of Venezuela recently said, but he is taking regular strolls in the isolated, sparsely populated and high-security neighborhood of Siboney a few miles east of the city proper.

"I couldn't believe it. The other day I looked up from my desk and there was Fidel just walking into the building to see my boss," the secretary of an important Cuban personality who works in his Siboney home told me the other day.

"He came over, said hi, asked what I was doing and meandered on," she said. "He did look very old and a bit hunched over, but otherwise seemed fine for his age."

Home Sweet Home

Another friend, who also asked her name not be used, said her parents who live near Castro see him often.

"My mom says they always know when the commandante is coming because body guards with AK-47s show up well before to check the area," she said.

"Then he slowly walks by, usually in his track suit and with a couple more body guards. Sometimes he stops to say hello."

Beginning in late January Castro received a string of Latin American heads of state and other guests at his home -- not the clinic or adjoining room where he met well wishers in the past. They all said Castro appeared remarkably fit for an 82-year-old man who had suffered a severe health crisis and that he was as intelligent and alert as ever.

Argentinean intellectual Atilio Boron was the first to describe in detail Castro's new surroundings after visiting him in February.

Boron told the Clarin newspaper that Castro's domicile included some fixtures to help him move around, exercise equipment, a small pool, clinic, study and personal computer.

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