Havana – Making his first public appearance in months, the rumors surrounding Fidel Castro's health can finally be put to rest.
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.
On Sunday a top hotel executive told The Associated Press they had seen the aging revolutionary, challenging persistent rumors that Castro is near death.
The 86-year-old leader dropped off Jaua at the Hotel Nacional on Saturday afternoon, then stayed for about half an hour to chat with hotel staff, commercial director Yamila Fuster said.
"Fidel Castro was here yesterday, he brought a guest and spoke to workers and hotel leaders for 30 minutes," Fuster said.
She said she was not present but that the news was being released officially by the state-owned establishment.
"They told me he looked very good. He was wearing a checked shirt and a hat," she said.
Castro's health has been the subject of intense speculation in recent days. He has not appeared on television or publically since March, when he was shown greeting visiting Pope Benedict XVI.
Rumors that the former Cuban leader has died or is near death have circulated repeatedly for years, but they gained force after he failed to issue a public statement congratulating Chavez on his Oct. 7 election victory.
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."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.