By MARC LACEY
Published: July 13, 2010
MEXICO CITY - In one of his first public appearances since falling ill four years ago, a frail-looking Fidel Castro went on Cuban television on Monday night and warned in a near whisper that the United States was increasing the chances of nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula and Iran.
Mr. Castro, who underwent emergency gastrointestinal surgery in July 2006, wore a flannel shirt and jogging suit and appeared at times to struggle to get his words out. But some of the feistiness he was known for in booming speeches that could stretch on for much of the day remained.
Reading from a sheaf of papers and gesturing in the air, Mr. Castro rattled off statistics, gave his view of history and appeared cogent as Randy Alonso, a government journalist who is close to Mr. Castro, lofted softball questions at him.
Since undergoing surgery and turning over the presidency to his brother, Raúl, Mr. Castro has slipped from the spotlight, but never completely disappeared. He has met frequently with foreign leaders, usually while wearing a jogging suit, and written regular commentaries for Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, on everything from the global financial crisis to the World Cup.
But his Monday night appearance on "Mesa Redonda," or "Round Table," a public affairs program broadcast on Cuban television, was the first time since fall 2007 that Cubans could actually see and hear their once-omnipresent leader again. His attention to detail, even when it leaves listeners scratching their heads, is one thing that had not changed.
The appearance came as Raúl Castro, who formally took over the presidency in 2008 after two years as the country's interim leader, prepared to release dozens of political prisoners whom Fidel Castro had jailed in a crackdown on dissent in 2003. The first prisoner was released on Monday and placed on an airliner bound for Madrid, Reuters reported, with as many as a half-dozen others expected to follow shortly.
The prisoners did not come up in the hourlong interview show on Monday, and it remains unclear if the Castro brothers agree on the release.
Analysts said that it had always been difficult to interpret Fidel Castro's motives, and that remains the case. Just why he would make such an appearance now was anybody's guess. It followed the release of photographs over the weekend showing Mr. Castro greeting Cubans at a government-run scientific institute.
"It's more evidence that he continues to play a significant role," said Brian Latell, a former C.I.A. analyst whose 2005 book, "After Fidel," examined the transition in Cuba's leadership. Mr. Latell, now at work on another book about the long, slow-motion transition in leadership, noted that Fidel Castro, although no longer president or commander in chief, remained first secretary of the Communist Party and thus continued to wield influence in the Cuban bureaucracy.
As for his health, the television appearance seemed to put to rest speculation that Mr. Castro, who turns 84 on Aug. 13, was incapacitated or even dead. Former President George W. Bush, a fierce Castro foe, had expressed frustration that the ailing Mr. Castro continued to hang on. "One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away," Mr. Bush once said.
President Obama's words have been more restrained, but Cuba and the United States have nonetheless found themselves at odds on a number of issues.
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