HAVANA – Argentine President Cristina Fernandez met with Fidel Castro behind closed doors in Cuba on Wednesday, easing rumors that the ailing former leader's health had badly deteriorated.
"I was with Fidel about an hour or more. We were talking, conversing, he looked good," Fernandez told reporters before boarding a flight to Venezuela at Havana's Jose Marti International airport, concluding her state visit to the island.
Fernandez said the 82-year-old Castro wore the track suit that has become his trademark uniform since he fell ill and vanished from public view nearly two and a half years ago.
"He told me he had followed the inauguration of Barack Obama very closely, that he had watched the inauguration on television all day," she said. "He had a very good perception of President Obama," she said, adding that Castro told her the new U.S. president seems "like a man who is absolutely sincere."
"Fidel believes in Obama," Fernandez said.
Raul Castro, 77, who succeeded his brother as Cuba's president 11 months ago, told reporters at the airport, "now you know that Fidel is fine, and not like the rumors around here."
Castro said his older brother spends his days "thinking a lot, reading a lot, advising me, helping me."
"Do you think if he were really gravely ill that I'd be smiling here?" Raul Castro said. "Soon I'm going to take a trip to Europe. You guys think I could leave here if Fidel were really in grave condition?"
It was the elder Castro's first confirmed meeting with a foreign leader since a Nov. 28 encounter with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The presidents of Panama and Ecuador visited earlier this month but left without saying they had seen Fidel Castro, adding to rampant speculation about his health.
Rumors that he was gravely ill — or worse — had also been fed by the fact that he has not published any of his usually fairly regular newspaper columns since Dec. 15, and by comments from close friend and ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saying Castro might not appear in public again.
A spokesman for Fernandez said their meeting was not part of the Argentine president's original agenda but was arranged by Raul Castro. He said the pair met alone. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the issue.
Earlier Wednesday, Raul Castro said Obama "seemed like a good man" and wished him luck, striking a conciliatory tone not echoed by Venezuela's government.
Obama has pledged to ease limits on Cuban-Americans' visits to the island and on how much money they can send back home to relatives. He has also offered to negotiate personally with Raul Castro, though he has said he won't push Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo, at least not right away.
Cubans see those as important steps in improving U.S.-Cuba relations. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, tightened sanctions on the communist-governed country.
Obama is receiving a rougher reception from Venezuela after referring to Chavez as "a destructive force in the region" during a recent interview with the Univision television network.
"We are willing to initiate diplomatic discussions about how we can improve relations," with Venezuela, Obama said, according to a transcript released by Univision.
Obama also was quoted as saying that he would have "to be very firm that when we see news of Venezuela exporting terrorist activities or supporting militias like the FARC, that creates problems that we cannot accept" — a reference to allegations that Chavez's government has backed Colombian rebels who are on a U.S. list of terror groups.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said he "hopes Obama rectifies" the comments and said the new U.S. president revealed his "total ignorance" about Latin America.
"President Chavez has won 12 of the 14 elections in the past 10 years. He is the legitimate president, and his leadership has gone beyond the region and helped solidify the peoples of the world," Maduro was quoted as saying Tuesday by the state-run Bolivarian News Agency.