HAVANA – Former Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua said Sunday that he met with aging revolutionary icon Fidel Castro for five hours and showed The Associated Press photos of the encounter, quashing persistent rumors that the former Cuban leader was on his deathbed or had suffered a massive stroke.
Jaua also confirmed that the 86-year-old retired Cuban president personally accompanied him to the Hotel Nacional after their meeting Saturday, in which they talked about politics, history, culture and tourism.
"He had the courtesy of bringing me to the hotel," Jaua said Sunday, adding that Castro looked "very well."
Jaua showed a photograph of himself seated in a minibus along with the former Cuban leader, Castro's wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, a hotel executive and several other people. The photo shows Jaua and Castro smiling broadly, and the former Cuban leader is wearing a checked shirt and cowboy hat.
The public appearance was Castro's first in months. A top Hotel Nacional executive told the AP earlier Sunday how Castro had dropped off the Venezuelan guest, then stayed on to chat with hotel staff.
"Fidel Castro was here yesterday, he brought a guest and spoke to workers and hotel leaders for 30 minutes," commercial director Yamila Fuster said. Fuster was not present, but hotel director Antonio Martinez is seated next to Castro in the photo shown by Jaua, and told Cuban media later that the bearded revolutionary's health was great.
"Fidel is excellent and his health is magnificent," Martinez said in comments carried on the evening news, which also broadcast images of Jaua showing off his photograph with Fidel. "With his cowboy hat, his smile, his ideas, (he was) very coherent and affectionate with the workers."
The news presenter also announced that Castro would publish an article on Monday, but did not say what it would be about.
State-run Trabajadores newspaper reported that an election worker collected an absentee ballot from Castro at his home and took it to the polls for him, a right it said was extended to all citziens with "impediments." On Sunday, Cubans were voting in municipal elections which the island's leaders hold up as evidence the government is representative. Critics say the process is a sham because there is no campaigning and only the Communist Party is recognized.
Castro's health has been the subject of intense speculation for years, but the rumors gained force in recent days after he failed to publicly congratulate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a top ally, on his Oct. 7 electoral victory. The former Cuban leader has not appeared since March, when he was shown greeting visiting Pope Benedict XVI, and he has also ceased writing his once-constant opinion pieces, the last of which appeared in June.
Twitter and other social media sites have been abuzz with claims of Castro's demise. Late last week, a Venezuelan doctor purported to have information that Castro had suffered a stroke, but the same doctor has previously claimed knowledge that turned out to be false.
Sunday's news from the Hotel Nacional appeared to be Cuba's attempt to hit back against what it says are false and malicious rumors. A letter attributed to Castro was published Thursday by Cuban state media. In it, he congratulated graduates of a medical school on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
Two close family members of Castro have also recently denied he is in grave condition. Juanita Castro, the former leader's sister, told the AP in Miami that reports of her brother's condition are "pure rumors" and "absurd."
Son Alex Castro told a reporter for a weekly Cuban newspaper that his father "is well, going about his daily life."
Castro stepped down in 2006 following a severe illness, handing power to his brother Raul.
Paul Haven, Anne-Marie Garcia and Fernando Gonzalez contributed to this report.