Fidel Castro speaks slowly, but appears relaxed in most prominent TV interview in years

By Paul Haven, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

Castro speaks slowly, seems relaxed in interview

HAVANA — Fidel Castro is speaking slowly, but appears relaxed and cogent in his most prominent television interview in years. The 83-year-old former president talked about the conflict between North and South Korea at the start of an interview Monday on the “Mesa Redonda” — or “Round Table” — a daily Cuban talk show on current events.

It was a rare appearance for a man who has stayed largely out of the public eye since a serious illness four years ago forced him from power. The first photographs of the revolutionary leader in a public forum were published on Saturday, when images of him greeting workers at a Havana think tank appeared in Cuban media.

Castro has shunned the spotlight since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

HAVANA (AP) — Fidel Castro is striding back into the limelight after years behind the scenes and out of view.

Days after being photographed in public for the first time since he fell ill in 2006, the 83-year-old revolutionary leader was scheduled to make a highly promoted appearance on state television on Monday to discuss his concerns about the Middle East.

Castro’s appearance on the Mesa Redonda — or Round Table — a daily talk show about current events that is usually transmitted live on state media across the island, was announced in a front-page story in the Communist-party daily Granma.

The announcement did not specify if the program would be broadcast live, and government officials contacted by The Associated Press had no comment. Castro also appeared in videotaped interviews with Cuban television in June and September 2007.

But appearances have been extremely rare since a serious illness in July 2006 forced him to step down — first temporarily, than permanently — and hand power over to his younger brother Raul. Photos of the elder Castro greeting workers at a science center were published in pro-government blogs and on state media over the weekend, the first time he has been photographed in public in that time.

Castro’s sudden reemergence comes after the dramatic announcement last week that Cuba will free 52 political prisoners in the next few months under a deal with the Roman Catholic Church.

While Cubans have become accustomed to reading Castro’s writings on world affairs in the local press, he has stayed largely out of the public eye since ceding power, helping Raul Castro solidify his place as the country’s leader after a lifetime spent in his more famous brother’s shadow.

Cubans reacted with surprise to word of Fidel Castro’s relative media blitz.

“I think it will have a positive effect on people,” 21-year-old student David Suarez told AP. “It will give hope that once again he will help to solve our problems.”

Magaly Delgado Rojo, a 72-year-old retiree in Havana’s Playa neighborhood, said the appearances must have been carefully thought out by Cuban leadership.

“The photos (published over the weekend) and now the Round Table are meant to send a message: ‘I am here and I am on top of everything … I am a part of every decision that is being made,’” she said. “This is not casual at all. This is calculated.”

Castro remains head of Cuba’s Communist Party and continues to publish his thoughts on world events in frequent opinion pieces, called Reflections. Recently, he has voiced alarm about America’s standoff with Iran over nuclear issues, as well as a deadly Israeli raid on an aid convoy headed to Gaza.

Castro has warned in several Reflections over the past few weeks that a nuclear conflagration involving Iran, Israel and the United States is imminent, going so far as to say that the World Cup was a distraction keeping people from focusing on potential global destruction.

“Amid game after game of the World Cup, the diabolical news trickles out little by little, so that nobody worries about it,” Castro wrote on June 24.

The two Castros have ruled Cuba since overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Fidel’s health has for years been the subject of frequent rumors — particularly among exiles in Florida, and his television appearance will undoubtedly be scrutinized for signs of his aging.

The photographs of Fidel published this weekend were taken on Wednesday at a scientific think tank in Havana. He is shown smiling and waving at workers, appearing relaxed and happy, but somewhat stooped. Granma republished the photographs on Monday under the story about his upcoming television appearance.

Cuba has occasionally released pictures showing Castro in private meetings with dignitaries, most recently during a visit in February by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. But he had not been photographed in a public setting since 2006.

Castro appeared in a 50-minute taped interview with the host of the Mesa Redonda, Randy Alonso, in June 2007, and discussed Vietnam and other topics. That appearance was announced more than a day before it aired.

He also appeared on Cuban television for an hour-long interview in September of that year, knocking down a slew of rumors of his death. That appearance was announced only minutes before it was broadcast.

A month later, he phoned in to a live broadcast featuring Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close Castro ally who was visiting Cuba. Castro sounded healthy and in good humor, but he was not seen.

Castro has also appeared in video clips and photographs with visiting presidents and other dignitaries.

On the Web:

Cubavision television (Spanish):

Cuban Radio Rebelde (Spanish):

Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.

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