HAVANA Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro is alive and well, according to Elias Jaua, a former Venezuelan vice president who says he met with Castro over the weekend.
Squelching rumors that Castro was at death's door, Jaua, a key aide to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, on Sunday showed reporters pictures of the Saturday meeting and said Castro, 86, was in good health and lucid.
Jaua, who is running for governor in Venezuela's contested state of Miranda, said Castro accompanied him to Havana's famed Hotel National early on Saturday evening after their meeting. He then chatted briefly with the hotel's general manager, Antonio Martinez Rodriguez, before departing.
Castro's long absence from the public eye has fueled blogger and Twitter rumors for weeks that he was dead or near dying.
"Yes, he was here yesterday, the same old Fidel with his beard and pink cheeks. He was fine," Martinez told Reuters on Sunday.
Castro was reportedly in a modified Mercedes gray van and did not leave the vehicle.
Apart from the comments by Jaua and Martinez, and the pictures shown to the media, there was no independent confirmation that anyone had actually seen the former leader.
After resigning the presidency in 2008, Fidel Castro regularly wrote columns for the state press, but has not published one since June 19, and his last few were widely viewed as so oddball that they raised questions about his mental state.
Only his Twitter account has been active but all the tweets are simply links in the press. Twitter accounts in the name of politicians and other people in the public eye are often run largely by their aides.
His last known public appearance was in March when he met briefly with Pope Benedict during his visit to the Communist island. Although he appeared mentally sharp, he had trouble walking and was badly stooped.
Chavez, a close friend and ally, has said on several occasions that Castro is well, and last week son Alex Castro said his father was exercising and doing fine.
A letter from Castro congratulating a Havana medical institute on its 50th anniversary was splashed across the front pages of Cuban newspapers on Thursday in his first appearance in print in four months.
The letter and an accompanying story, which took up the entire first page of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, appeared to be an attempt to dampen rumors about his health.
However, the letter, published with Castro's signature and dated October 17, did little to end speculation over his health, many questioning its authenticity.
(Editing by Tom Brown; Editing by Sandra Maler)