HAVANA - Fidel Castro has appeared in public for the first time in months, a top hotel executive told The Associated Press on Sunday, challenging persistent rumors that the aging revolutionary is near death.
The 86-year-old retired leader dropped off a Venezuelan guest at the Hotel Nacional on Saturday afternoon, then stayed to chat with hotel staff, commercial director Yamila Fuster said.
"Fidel Castro was here yesterday, he brought a guest and spoke to workers and hotel leaders for 30 minutes," Fuster said. She said she was not present but that the news was being released officially by the state-owned establishment.
"They told me he looked very good. He was wearing a checked shirt and a hat," she said.
Fuster would not release the name of the Venezuelan guest, but witnesses at the hotel say former Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua is staying there. A car with Venezuelan diplomatic plates was parked Sunday outside the hotel, and Cuban officials were seen carrying a photo album similar to ones the government gives as gifts to distinguished guests, normally filled with official pictures.
No photos have yet been released of Fidel's visit, but Fuster said they may be soon.
Asked to confirm the news, the Cuban government referred all questions to the hotel.
The Nacional is Cuba's most famous hotel and a common choice of many distinguished guests to the island.
Castro's health has been the subject of intense speculation for years, but the rumors gained force in recent days after he failed to publicly congratulate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a top ally, on his Oct. 7 electoral victory. The former Cuban leader has not appeared since March, when he was shown greeting visiting Pope Benedict XVI, and he has also ceased writing his once-constant opinion pieces, the last of which appeared in June.
Twitter and other social media sites have been abuzz with claims of Castro's demise. Late last week, a Venezuelan doctor purported to have information that Castro had suffered a stroke, but the same doctor has previously claimed knowledge that turned out to be false.
Sunday's news from the Hotel Nacional appeared to be Cuba's attempt to hit back against what it says are false and malicious rumors. A letter attributed to Castro was published Thursday by Cuban state media. In it, he congratulated graduates of a medical school on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
Two close family members of Castro have also recently denied he is in grave condition. Juanita Castro, the former leader's sister, told the AP in Miami that reports of her brother's condition are "pure rumors" and "absurd."
Son Alex Castro told a reporter for a weekly Cuban newspaper that his father "is well, going about his daily life."
Castro stepped down in 2006 following a severe illness, handing power to his brother Raul.
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