HAVANA – On his 80th birthday, Fidel Castro cautioned Cubans on Sunday that he faced a long recovery from surgery and advised them to prepare for "adverse news," but he urged them to stay optimistic.
Meanwhile, Castro's younger brother, Raul, made his first public appearance as Cuba's interim president, receiving Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Havana airport Sunday. Chavez arrived to celebrate the elder Castro's birthday.
As the Communist Youth newspaper published the first photographs of the Cuban leader since illness forced him to step aside as president two weeks ago, Castro said his health had improved, but warned that risks remain.
"I feel very happy," said a statement attributed to Castro in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper. "For all those who care about my health, I promise to fight for it."
In the photos appearing in the online edition of Juventud Rebelde, Castro wears a red and white Adidas warm-up suit, looks a bit tired but is sitting up straight, his eyes alert.
One picture is a close shot of the leader posing with his fist under his chin and in two he is talking on the telephone.
The fourth photograph shows Castro sitting in a chair in front of a bed with a white spread in what appears to be a home, holding up a special supplement published as an homage to him on his 80th birthday in the Saturday edition of Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.
It was impossible to confirm the authenticity of the photographs, which were credited to Estudios Revolucion, a division of Castro's personal support group that collects historic documents and images. But there was no reason to doubt they were real.
Juventud Rebelde also published a handwritten note by Castro to five Cuban men who were convicted of working in the United States as unregistered foreign agents and last week were denied a new trail by a federal appeals court.
"Rene, Antonio, Gerardo, Fernando, Ramon: We will triumph over the monstrous injustice!" read the note in Castro's typical scrawl. It was signed: "Fidel. August 13, 2006 12:39 a.m."
In his statement, Castro said his stability has "considerably improved" but added: "To affirm that the recovery period will take a short time and that there is no risk would be absolutely incorrect."
"I ask you all to be optimistic, and at the same time to be ready to face any adverse news," it added.
"To the people of Cuba, infinite gratitude for your loving support. The country is marching on and will continue marching on perfectly well."
Russian President Vladimir Putin joined those sending greetings to the Cuban leader on his birthday and wished him a speedy recovery.
The Kremlin said Putin also promised that Russia and Cuba would continue to be "active partners." Putin's government has sought to revive relations with the island, which had weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Saturday, Granma said Castro was walking and talking again, and even working a bit. It was the most optimistic report yet since intestinal surgery forced him to temporarily turn over presidential powers to his younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.
Castro's close friend and political ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said Saturday that he would visit the Cuban leader.
"Tomorrow I will be with Fidel celebrating his 80th birthday," Chavez said at a news conference in Caracas after declaring his candidacy for re-election in December.
"I'll take him a nice gift, a good cake, and we'll be celebrating the 80 years of this great figure of America and our history."
Chavez also visited Castro in October 2004, two weeks after a fall that shattered the Cuban leader's kneecap and broke his right arm. A picture of the pair on the front page of Granma was the first image published of Castro after the accident.
Saturday's article in Granma — though brief — was the most detailed statement that Cuba's government has issued since Castro announced July 31 that he was temporarily ceding his powers to his brother, No. 2 in the government.
South Florida's Cuban exile community used the newspaper report to criticize the island's government.
"Sadly, Granma's optimism of Fidel Castro's health is in sharp contrast to political prisoners who are rotting in Cuban prisons for simply disagreeing (with him)," said Alfredo Mesa, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation. "Dead or alive, change in Cuba must come now. The era of Fidel Castro must end."
Despite the optimistic assessment of Castro's progress, few believed he would make a public appearance on his birthday. No official events were announced for Sunday.
In ceding his powers, Castro blamed an unspecified intestinal problem brought on by a heavy work schedule. He recently traveled to Argentina for a summit of the trade group Mercosur and gave two long speeches in eastern Cuba on July 26, the last time he was seen in public.