WASHINGTON – Fidel Castro is sitting up, walking and even working a bit on the eve of his 80th birthday, Cuba's official Communist Party newspaper said Saturday. It was the most optimistic report yet since intestinal surgery forced the Cuban leader to step aside as president.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, meanwhile, announced plans to visit his close friend and political ally in Havana.
"Tomorrow I will be with Fidel celebrating his 80th birthday," Chavez said at a news conference in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas after declaring his candidacy for re-election in December.
"I'll take him a nice gift, a good cake, and we'll be celebrating the 80 years of this great figure of America and our history," Chavez said.
Chavez also visited Castro in October 2004, two weeks after a devastating fall that shattered the Cuban leader's kneecap and broke his right arm. A picture of the pair on the front page of Granma newspaper was the first image published of Castro after the accident.
Saturday's article in the Granma newspaper — though brief and cryptic — was the most detailed statement Cuba's government has issued since Castro announced July 31 that he was temporarily ceding his powers to his younger brother Raul, No. 2 in the government.
Fidel Castro said his condition during his recovery would be treated as a "state secret," so as not to give any advantage to his enemies in the United States.
"Firm Like a Caguairan," the Granma headline read, comparing Castro to a hardwood tropical tree native to eastern Cuba.
"A friend tells us that just a few hours ago, upon visiting the Comandante who was briefly dispatching some business, he witnessed some good news that he enthusiastically summed up in one sentence: 'The Caguairan has risen,"' the paper said in a three-paragraph report.
"He said that he could appreciate how the Chief of the Revolution, after receiving a little physical therapy, took some steps in his room and then, seated in a chair, conversed animatedly," the report said, without identifying the friend.
Cuban Culture Minister Abel Prieto told The Associated Press on Friday that he was convinced that with or without Castro, Cuba will "continue to be a survivor of the sinking ship of socialism in the 20th century. It will be a reference for socialism in the 21st century."
Prieto made clear he wants Castro to live much longer, and said the Cuban leader needs to learn to take care of himself and rest. "It's important that Fidel take that into account in the future," Prieto said.
Chavez said nearly a week ago he had received news that the Cuban leader was getting out of bed and talking, but Havana had offered no details of his progress before the Granma report.
After Chavez said on Thursday that his friend was in a "great battle for life," some believed Castro was in worse shape than initially known.
While the news of Castro's progress will surely be embraced by his supporters, South Florida's Cuban exile community used it to criticize the island's government.
"Sadly, Granma's optimism of Fidel Castro's health is in sharp contrast to political prisoners who are rotting in Cuban prisons for simply disagreeing (with him)," said Alfredo Mesa, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation. "Dead or alive, change in Cuba must come now. The era of Fidel Castro must end."
Despite the optimistic assessment of Castro's progress, few believed that he would be making a public appearance on his 80th birthday Sunday.
No official events had been announced for Sunday, although Cuban musicians were staging a Saturday night concert in support of Castro and his government.
Latin American intellectuals had planned several days of parties, concerts and conferences on the legacy of Cuba's "Maximum Leader." But Castro was expected to spend the weekend in recovery. Celebrations have been postponed until Dec. 2, the 50th anniversary of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
A photo exhibit celebrating Castro's 80 years opened in Old Havana late Friday, displaying mainly black-and-white images of the Cuban leader diving, cutting sugar cane and speaking to large crowds. A photograph of a young Castro in a stylish suit in New York and another showing him skiing in the mountains of Eastern Europe were also displayed.
Cubans have cultivated a myth over the last half-century that Castro is invincible, but in recent days have had to face the reality that their leader is an elderly man who will someday die.
Since Castro announced his illness almost two weeks ago, the country has calmly and quietly gone about its business, waiting for more news about his condition and wondering what the future holds.
The Cuban president blamed an unspecified intestinal problem brought on by a heavy work schedule and lack of rest. He recently traveled to Argentina for a summit of the South American trade group Mercosur and gave two long speeches in eastern Cuba on July 26, the last time he was seen in public.