HAVANA – Cubans welcomed new photographs showing Fidel Castro in an 80th birthday visit with his brother Raul and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as evidence that their leader was alive and recovering — although visibly more mortal than ever.
Castro has become larger than life in his nearly 50 years in power. He's generally seen shaking his fist in the air, leading huge marches or giving long speeches, and iconic images of a younger, more vital Castro often appear in state-run media.
But Monday's photographs showed him bedridden, looking tired and pale as he clasped the hand of close friend Chavez.
"I was thinking the worst before," said 37-year-old Ernesto Fundora, who works at a tobacco factory. "Now I don't have any doubt that he's alive. But still, he could go at any minute."
Just a few years ago, Castro's health — and especially his eventual death — were taboo subjects. Some loyalists insisted he literally would never die.
Many now say they expect him to be around awhile yet, but with this latest illness, few insist he'll live forever.
Castro announced two weeks ago that he had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding and was putting his brother in charge while he recuperates. On his birthday, he released a statement saying his recovery would be long, and warned Cubans to prepare for "adverse news" — advice perhaps aimed at helping them come to terms with his eventual death.
The streets of Havana remained calm Monday. While Castro's illness has made Cubans uneasy about the future, upbeat statements from government officials and the two days of photographs have helped calm their nerves as they face up to his mortality.
"It seems like he is getting better. He's a strong and healthy person and everyone wants him to get well," said Angela Ramirez, a 43-year-old cleaning woman.
Whether he gets back on his feet or permanently cedes control to defense minister Raul Castro, his constitutional successor, some say they expect much to remain the same in Cuba.
"I don't think anything is going to change," said Valeria Ramos, 38, now unemployed as she cares for her disabled child. "Our people are united, and even if Fidel's no longer here, all of us Cubans will be.
"But I do hope he can keep guiding us," she added.
Castro has not been seen publicly since July 26, and Cuban officials haven't released details of his condition or disclosed where he's being treated.
The Cuban government also hasn't announced any changes in plans for the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana on Sept. 11-16, when leaders of some 120 nations are expected to come to Havana and Cuba will take over the group's rotating presidency. On Monday, Iran's IRNA news service reported that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Raul Castro to wish his brother a speedy recovery and offer Tehran's help as Cuba prepares for the summit.
Castro spent hours with his brother and Chavez on Sunday, eating, laughing and sharing anecdotes, according to the Communist Party newspaper Granma, which published photographs of their meeting. A day earlier, the party's youth paper, Juventud Rebelde, released the first images of Castro since his July 31 announcement.
Scores of people swarmed Havana's newspaper stands Monday to buy the daily and see the seven images. They showed him in bed, clasping Chavez's hand affectionately; writing in a notebook; eating a snack; and even holding a dagger Chavez gave him for his 80th birthday. Chavez said the blade once belonged to the South American independence fighter Simon Bolivar.
Chavez and the Castro brothers were shown smiling next to a large portrait of the Cuban leader, painted in 1959 by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, which Raul gave to Chavez.
The Granma article quoted Chavez as saying, "This is the best visit I've ever had in my life."
"They look very good to me," 79-year-old parking attendant Rene Vicente Rodriguez said of the photographs in the paper. "The people love him and we are going to have Fidel for a while."