Ailing Fidel Castro Reportedly Calls Cuban Leaders to Stem Rumors About His Health

Fidel Castro telephoned a meeting of provincial legislative leaders, the Communist Party daily said Saturday in a report apparently aimed at quelling rumors about the ailing Cuban leader's health.

Meanwhile, 10 visiting U.S. Congress members met with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and other communist officials, two weeks after acting leader Raul Castro offered to hold a dialogue with American officials on equal terms.

The call by Castro to provincial leaders Friday and another to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the same day constituted the first news in 11 days about the convalescing 80-year-old, who has not been seen in public in more than four months.

Even if Castro is not as sick as some believe — including many in the U.S. government — his prolonged absence from public life has raised questions about whether he will ever return to power.

Vice President Carlos Lage and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon were presiding over the Friday meeting of provincial assembly presidents when Castro called, Granma newspaper reported. The full National Assembly will hold a regular session Dec. 22 to vote on the island's budget and other matters.

Chavez said in Caracas on Friday that Castro, a close friend and political ally, called him the same day to congratulate him on his re-election victory earlier this month.

The last news about Castro was issued on Dec. 5 when Granma published a typed letter signed by Castro congratulating Chavez on his electoral win. He has not been seen in public since July 26, five days before he announced that he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was temporarily ceding his powers to his 75-year-old brother Raul.

The U.S. lawmakers had reportedly asked to meet with Raul Castro during their weekend visit to Cuba, but there was no word on whether such a meeting would take place.

Led by Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and William Delahunt, D-Mass., the group arrived Friday afternoon and met that evening with Alarcon. On Saturday, the group was seen entering the Foreign Ministry for the meeting with Perez Roque.

Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., told reporters: "Everything is going well."

In recent years, the United States has intensified its trade embargo against Cuba, as well as other policies aimed at squeezing the island's economy and undermining its communist leaders.

Bush administration officials have twice rejected offers to talk with Cuban leaders since Fidel Castro fell ill, saying the country must first hold free and competitive elections and release all political prisoners.