Eldest Castro Brother Claims Fidel's Health is Steadily Improving

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Ramon Castro, the older brother of leader Fidel Castro, said Saturday his more famous sibling is steadily improving after intestinal surgery that has left their younger brother Raul temporarily in charge of the country.

"He's much better," Ramon Castro said of Fidel. "He works savagely and that has a cost."

Ramon Castro, who turns 82 in October, is a lifelong farmer who has stayed out of national politics. He indicated he had not yet read his brother Raul's interview with the Communist Party newspaper Granma, which was published Friday and constituted his first public comments since assuming provisional power on July 31.

CountryWatch: Cuba

The eldest Castro brother, who bears a striking resemblance to 80-year-old Fidel with his Romanesque profile and white beard, spoke at the international airport awaiting the arrival of Florida cattleman John Parke Wright IV, with whom he has formed a strong friendship during the American's frequent visits to the island.

The specifics of Castro's ailment and the nature of the surgery he underwent have been treated as a state secret. The leader blamed his heavy work and travel schedule for causing sustained intestinal bleeding, which prompted the need for emergency surgery.

Recent government photographs and video of the leader showed him conscious, coherent and in good spirits.

Ramon Castro warmly embraced Wright, 56, after he stepped off the charter flight from Miami. The American gave the elder Castro brother a new tan Stetson felt hat as a gift from Florida cattlemen. Castro gave Wright some Cuban cigars.

"I'm here to see my great friend Ramon. There's no blockade on friendship," said Wright, using the term Cuba's Communist government uses to refer to the long-standing U.S. trade sanctions against the island.

Castro told Wright that he, and many others on the island, look forward to his visits. He also noted that Wright is a regular churchgoer and said: "You should pray for the good health of my family."

"A lot of people have been praying for your brother's health," Wright told him.

Wright, who opposes U.S. sanctions against the island, helped broker some of the first sales of American cattle to Communist Cuba under a U.S. law passed in 2000 that created a loophole in the embargo and permits such transactions on a cash basis. His firm, J.P. Wright & Co. Inc., is based in Naples, Florida.

Wright's ancestors shipped cattle to the Caribbean nation starting in the 1850s, because Florida-bred livestock was suited to the similar tropical climate in Cuba. But trade was halted by the U.S. embargo imposed several years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

On his current 10-day trip, Wright plans to meet with representatives of Cuba's food import agency to discuss possible future sales, as well as shipping arrangements for future agricultural transactions.

He also hopes to spend a lot of time with Ramon Castro, inspecting cattle and maybe even riding horses together.

With the creation of a caretaker government on the island, Wright said he is not worried about Cuba's future. And he remains hopeful for an eventual resumption of full U.S.-Cuba trade relations in his lifetime.

"Cuba is in great hands," Wright said. "Cuba is being run by the Cubans."