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Lider Maximo - Havana Tuesday Jan. 30, 2007

by zed Thursday, Feb. 01, 2007 at 5:15 AM

Cuba's President Fidel Castro talks with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez in Havana January 29, 2007. State television showed Castro for the first time in three months on Tuesday and the ailing Cuban leader said he was still in the fight to recover from surgery that forced him to relinquish power last July. Picture taken January 29, 2007

HAVANA - Emerging from months of seclusion, Cuban President Fidel Castro has appeared on television in apparent good spirits, telling his Venezuelan counterpart his recovery from surgery was "far from being a lost battle."

Castro, 80, stood for part of the meeting with his Venezuelan friend and ally Hugo Chavez. He seemed far healthier than he did the last time such footage was broadcast by Cuban television three months ago.

The video raises new speculation over Castro's fate and leadership over the communist-ruled island six months after he underwent intestinal surgery and handed over power "provisionally" to his brother Raul.

"This is far from being a lost battle," said Castro, clad in a red, blue and white track suit the colors of Cuba's flag.

Chavez, wearing his trademark red shirt, responded: "it is not, nor will it be a lost battle."

The ailing Cuban leader spoke slowly and softly and sipped orange juice during the meeting, which state-run television said lasted two hours and took place in Havana on Monday.

Castro recalled his fall during a public event in October 2004, when he hurt his right shoulder and his left knee.

"I had a fall, I hadn't finished recovering, and then the other one came," he said in apparent reference to his surgery.

"One after the other," the veteran revolutionary leader added.

The footage, which lasts just under six minutes, showed the two presidents sharing a bear hug, which Chavez said reflected the feelings of "the millions" who admire the Cuban president.

Chavez, a former paratrooper, greeted the smiling Castro with a crisp military salute and hailed him as "the Caesar of dignity."

The firebrand Venezuelan leader said the two discussed a variety of topics, ranging from the environment to "the threats of the (US) empire against the world."

He said Castro was in good spirits, looked well and spoke "with much clarity, as always, in his ideas."

Chavez's brother Adan, Venezuela's education minister and the former ambassador to Havana, also appeared briefly chatting with the Cuban leader.

The two presidents concluded their meeting by saying, one after the other: "We will triumph. Fatherland, socialism or death."

It was the sixth time authorities released video footage of Castro since he underwent intestinal surgery on July 27, 2006.

Following the operation, Castro announced in a July 31 statement that he "provisionally" handed over authority to his younger brother Raul, 75, Cuba's defense minister and longtime number two.

Cuban television said the younger Castro saw Chavez off on Tuesday and broadcast a photograph of the two.

Communist authorities in this one-party state say Fidel Castro is recovering steadily, but have given scant details about his condition.

Castro, who has survived several assassination attempts in his 48 years in power, said a few days after surgery that his condition had to remain a "state secret."

Such secrecy is crucial for the communist government, which insists that ever since Castro toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba has been under constant threat from the United States.

The secrecy however has also fueled rumors and speculation.

US authorities suggested earlier this month that Castro has cancer and may have only days to live, while Spain's El Pais daily said recently he had suffered intestinal hemorrhaging and a severe infection caused by inflammation of the large intestine.

In Washington, the US administration said the television footage did not alter its policy on Cuba.

"Our position has not changed. We are for a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba," Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, told AFP.

A number of people interviewed in Havana expressed relief at finally getting some news of Castro, the only president most Cubans have ever known.

"The Comandante will be here for a while," said Jose Diaz, 27, after watching the television broadcast.

"He is recovering well. He looks much better," he said.

Regla Falcon was visibly moved as she watched the footage in her home in Havana's historic old town.

"We were waiting for these images, to know he is well," she said.

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