Frail But Alert Castro Appears On Cuban TV

In this photo released Saturday June 2, 2007 by Cuba's Juventud Rebelde newspaper, Cuba's President Fidel Castro is seen with Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh in Havana.
Speaking slowly and focusing on memories of the past, not his recovery and future, a frail but healthy-looking Fidel Castro appeared on Cuban television Tuesday, giving the world its first long look at him since he fell ill last summer.

Looking alert and well-rested, the island's 80-year-old "Maximum Leader" wore a red, white and blue tracksuit affixed with a Cuban flag in an hour-long interview with a state TV journalist, his first since emergency surgery forced him to give up power 10 months ago.

"I am doing what I am supposed to do," said Castro, referring to his health and diet. "There are no more secrets. I could not be more clear."

Often shaking his arm and extending a finger for emphasis, Castro spoke for more than half an hour about Vietnam and his weekend meeting with the chief of that country's Communist Party, Nong Duc Manh.

"How hot it was!" said Castro, recalling a 1973 visit to Manh's country, when the U.S. was still backing the south in a war there that the communist north eventually won. "It was like you jumped in a pool with clothes on," he said of the humidity, which can also be brutal in Havana.

But his train of thought was often hard to follow, and his physical appearance was arguably more newsworthy than anything he said during the interview with Randy Alonso, host of the government's nightly "Round Table" program. Alonso said the interview was conducted Monday.

Sometimes grinning in awe and sometimes listening intently, Alonso got Castro talking by asking open-ended questions in a soft tone.

After a few minutes, Castro needed little prompting, however, and began reading a tedious string of statistics about the number of teachers and other basic services in Vietnam from a notebook in his lap.

It took him about 40 minutes to mention U.S. President George W. Bush, and then only in the context of international meetings about the environment. Castro made no mention that the U.S. president wants him dead, even though, in a signed essay last week, he quoted Bush as saying, "I'm a hard-line president and I'm only waiting for Castro to die."

"I'm not the first, nor will I be the last, that Bush has ordered to be deprived of life," wrote Castro, who provided few details about when the U.S. president allegedly made the comments.

Recovering in an undisclosed location, Castro has not been seen in public since before July 31, when he announced he was temporarily ceding power to a provisional government headed by his 76-year-old brother Raul, the defense minister. Life on the island has been little changed since, and top officials insist months Castro's health is improving.

In recent weeks, Castro has written a string of essays including the one about Bush's alleged comments. Others have blasted a U.S.-backed plan to use food crops for biofuels. He promised during Tuesday's interview he would write more in the future.

Just days ago, Castro grumbled in his writings about having to cut his hair and trim his beard for official photos and suggested he was happy with the role of columnist and elder statesmen and in no hurry to retake Cuba's presidency.

Wearing another of the track suits that have replaced olive-green military uniforms as his trademark garb, Castro looked stronger, more upbeat and chattier in video clips of his meeting Saturday with Manh.

That was the first official videotape of Castro released since a January meeting in Havana with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and the first still photographs of him since a meeting with Chinese Communist Party leader Wu Guanzheng in April.

In Washington on Monday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "Clearly, Fidel Castro is not playing the same kind of role right now that he was, say, one year ago or two years ago."

"What exactly that means for Cuba's immediate political future, I can't tell you," he added.