HAVANA – Fidel Castro appeared tired yet alert in a video with his younger brother and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the first footage of the bedridden Cuban leader since he stepped aside as president two weeks ago.
The video, shown Monday on state-run television, appeared aimed at dispelling doubts that Castro was still alive after surgery for intestinal bleeding. It also showed a vulnerable and affectionate side of the leader, who clasped Chavez's hands and looked warmly at his close friend and political ally.
Chavez gave an optimistic report of the leader's health later Monday after traveling to Jamaica, where he told reporters in Montego Bay that Castro "will recover sooner than we hoped."
He said Castro has endured "extraordinarily difficult moments" during this illness but pointed out that he didn't even need "a single doctor" during their three-hour meeting.
Castro had 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 mystery surrounding his illness has worried some Cubans that he might be worse off than authorities were telling them.
But with the video and two days of fresh photographs published in state-run newspapers, Castro supporters said they felt more confident about his chance of survival.
"He's made of iron," Havana resident Felipe Sanchez said of the leader, who turned 80 on Sunday, the same day of the videotaped encounter. "It looks like the worst has passed, which many of us weren't sure would happen."
In the video, Castro's voice was inaudible as he bantered back and forth with his brother and Chavez, clearly enjoying himself. He was later shown in animated conversation with Chavez, but music played over his words.
The mood was more serious when Chavez told Castro, "I sat down to pray" when he learned of the Cuban leader's illness and operation. "That was a horrible day."
But the Venezuelan president also was effusively hopeful, saying, "Your capacity to recover is impressive."
The two friends looked at photographs taken together -- including one from a trip Castro took to Venezuela during an earlier birthday -- and shared a snack. Sentimental music accompanied the footage, which lasted about 10 minutes.
"This is the best visit I've ever had in my life," Chavez said.
Earlier in the day, Cubans had welcomed photographs of the encounter published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma as evidence that their leader appeared to be recovering -- although he appeared more mortal than ever.
Castro has seemed to 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 leader frequently appear in Cuba's state-run media.
But recent images show a more frail man.
"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."
Even just a few years ago, Castro's health -- and especially his eventual death -- were taboo subjects. Some loyalists insisted that he literally would never die.
Many now say they expect him to be around awhile yet, but with this latest illness, few still insist he'll live forever.
Castro's surgery was announced July 31, when he temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raul Castro, who is the island's defense minister and his constitutional successor.
The elder Castro released a statement on his birthday saying his recovery would be long and that Cubans should be prepared for "adverse news" -- advice perhaps aimed at helping them come to terms with his eventual death.
Whether Castro gets back on his feet or permanently cedes control to Raul, some say they expect much to remain the same here.
"I don't think anything is going to change," said Valeria Ramos, 38, currently unemployed as she takes care of 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.