HAVANA, Cuba, April 24, 2009 -- 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.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in Cuba to sound out the country late last month, said they arrived at Castro's home to be greeted by his wife at the gate while her husband casually stood at the door.
And so the fog does seem to be finally lifting over where Castro is and his general condition -- semi-retired and no longer gravely ill -- though he still arrives every week or two at the Cimeq hospital in Siboney for treatment, according to staff there.
And it is lifting just as the sparring between Cuba and the United States over how to mend a half century of hostilities begins with the Obama administration.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence.
Some Mystery Remains
What actually ails Fidel Castro, his daily schedule and role within the Cuban government as it prepares for stepped up contact with the United States remains murky.
His brother and current Cuban President Raul Castro says he consults with Fidel on all important matters of state.
Castro of late has been writing daily on topics ranging from relations between the United States and Latin America to possible talks with the Obama administration. He is also said to be working on his memoirs.
Spanish doctor Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido, the only foreign physician known to have treated Fidel Castro and kept up to date on his condition, told the Argentine newspaper Perfil in November 2008 that his famous patient was doing just fine, words largely ignored at the time but that in hindsight ring true.
"Fidel is doing very well. He leads a normal life and could return to power if he wanted to. He has no physical or medical impediments," the doctor said, adding that Castro had entered "another stage in life" that was "more reflective."
"I believe he does not want to return (to power). He gave up power to a second group of officials he trusts and with whom he is very pleased," Garcia Sabrido said.
How much influence Fidel Castro still has is impossible to gauge, but it certainly is considerable.
"Raul is completely in control of the country and running the government. But Fidel is Fidel, the historic leader of the revolution to whom everyone feels deference," my best source says. "To the extent he can participate he is welcome to participate."
And that means Castro will play an important behind the scenes role in relations with the 11th U.S. president he has faced, assuming his health holds up.