Fidel Castro makes TV appearance

15Jan

Ageing former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has appeared on television for the first time in nearly a year, as the government began releasing 52 dissidents under a landmark deal brokered with the Catholic Church.

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Castro, 83, appeared healthy and animated as he discussed his views on the Middle East and North Korea in a recorded interview with the anchor of the “Round Table” news and analysis show, which aired on state-run television at 6:30 pm (2230 GMT).

The Cuban revolutionary spoke of an “imminent” US and Israeli attack on Iran, and blamed the United States for secretly sinking a South Korean warship in March, then accusing North Korea of being behind the incident.

An international inquiry found that the North had torpedoed South Korea’s Cheonan corvette, killing 46 sailors. But Pyongyang has angrily denied responsibility.

Castro has made only sporadic appearances — either on television or in public — since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 drove him to hand power to his younger brother Raul.

Political columns in Fidel Castro’s name are published regularly in state media, but the columns have focused for the past year on international affairs and largely ignored domestic affairs.

The television interview was taped, as were two previous Castro performances on the program in June and September of 2007.

Recent events represent something of a return to form for Castro, who turns 84 next month.

He was photographed at a public function at a science center on Wednesday, believed to be his first public outing since December, when he left his residence to meet visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Five photos were published over the weekend of Castro wearing a track suit — his customary attire since relinquishing the presidency — greeting well-wishers at Havana’s National Center for Scientific Investigation.

The bout of Castro appearances comes at a delicate time politically for Cuba as it begins releasing dissidents under a landmark deal brokered with the Catholic Church last week.

If all 52 activists are freed as the government has promised, it would be the largest prisoner release of Raul Castro’s tenure.

The last video of Castro was almost a year ago when he was filmed in an animated conversation with a group of law students from Venezuela’s University of Carabobo.

Guerrilla revolutionary and communist idol, Castro held out against history when he turned tiny Cuba into a thorn in the paw of the mighty capitalist United States.

Famed for his rumpled olive fatigues, straggly beard and the cigars he reluctantly gave up for his health, he kept a tight clamp on dissent at home while defining himself abroad with his defiance of Washington.

Castro and a band of followers launched their revolt in earnest on December 2, 1956 when they landed in southeastern Cuba on the ship Granma.

Twenty-five months later, against great odds, they ousted president Fulgencio Batista and Castro was named prime minister.

After leading the Americas’ only one-party communist country through nearly half of the 20th century and into the 21st, he still serves as first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party.

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