Cubans were glued to their TV sets Sunday as new video of their elusive President Fidel Castro was aired, and they also got to hear his voice live and unedited for the first time in over a year as he spoke by phone with one of his strongest Latin American allies, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez is in Cuba to discuss bilateral agreements and to honor Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara on the 40th anniversary of his death by broadcasting his weekly Sunday television and radio program, Aló Presidente, from Santa Clara, 167 miles east of Havana, where Guevara's remains are entombed in a mausoleum.
"Fidel's not well but he's better than the last time we saw him on video," said one harried mother preparing her three children for their return to boarding school Monday. "Only he spoke so slow, very slow, even though he was coherent," she said uneasily after watching the tape and listening to the one-hour phone conversation that took place during Aló Presidente, carried live by Cuban television.
The 17-minute video was edited from, what government sources say, was a four-hour meeting between Castro and Chavez in Havana on Saturday. It shows the two seated in the same nondescript room where the Cuban leader has been receiving a select group of foreign dignitaries since undergoing intestinal surgery in July 2006.
Castro is wearing a track suit jacket in the Cuban colors red, white and blue, over dark colored pajamas and sitting on a cushion on a hard backed chair.
Castro was lucid, animated and appeared to be thoroughly enjoying his conversation with Chavez as the two discussed Guevara's revolutionary exploits.
"He looked a lot more comfortable talking with Chavez than he did in the conversation with Randy Alonso (a Cuban TV commentator)," said a mechanic, referring to a videotape that aired September 21.
Before ducking under the hood of a car, he added, "Fidel obviously feels he has nothing to fear from Chavez. The guy isn't going to make him look bad and he inspires him."
The sampling of opinions also reveals that Cubans are getting accustomed to the idea that their long-time leader will never return to his former hyperactive public life.
"His era is over. We won't see more of him than we saw today, just variations of it," was one comment. Another Castro supporter described it this way: "We have to resign ourselves to the fact that he won't be able to resume his life as before."
Nevertheless, several people expressed relief at finally hearing him speak live. "It's not the same as seeing him in an edited video. You know they chose the parts where he looks and sounds the best. They're not going to put on the bad parts," said a twenty-four year old man.
Castro has not appeared in public in the 14 months since he fell ill with intestinal bleeding. Castro called in to one of Chavez's programs broadcast from Venezuela in February and the pair chatted for more than a half hour.
Instead of seeing him constantly giving long speeches on TV or at public rallies, Cubans have come to expect commentaries, a steady stream of them, in the local press penned by Castro. His topics range from environmental issues to the Iraq war and almost always include criticism of U.S. President George Bush.
In his good humored phone conversation Sunday with Chavez, Castro joked, "We are the axis of evil," the sobriquet President Bush bestowed on North Korea, Iran and pre-war Iraq. It has been also used by others in Washington to refer to the progressive alliance Chavez, with Castro's blessing, has been forging in Latin America that includes Bolivia and Ecuador.
As the two men spoke of Guevara's plans to spread revolution on that continent 40 years ago, Castro told Chavez, "The circumstances are more propitious than ever for the flowering of those ideas of revolution that Che spoke of."
Castro did not comment on his health at any point in the video or phone conversation, but Chavez regretfully noted more than once that the Cuban leader is no longer able to travel. However, he also told Castro, "You will never die. You remain forever on this continent and with these nations and this revolution is more alive today than ever, and Fidel, you know it. We will take charge of continuing to fan the flame."
At the end of the five-hour program, the Venezuela President set off for port city of Cienfuegos on Cuba's southern coast, where his government has been reconstructing a major oil refinery. Chavez told the audience of top Venezuelan and Cuban leaders with him in Santa Clara that he envisions Cienfuegos becoming an important petrochemical processing center.