HAVANA Fidel Castro appeared more vigorous on Sunday in the first television images of the Cuban leader to be broadcast in Cuba in four months, adding weight to reports that he has put his health crisis behind him.
Castro appeared talking animatedly, standing in a track suit during a meeting on Saturday afternoon with Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh.
Castro, 80, has not appeared in public since emergency bowel surgery forced him to hand over power 10 months ago to his brother Raul Castro for the first time since coming to power in a 1959 revolution.
But he looked healthier and more alert than in the last video images shown of him in Cuba on January 30 during a visit by his leftist ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
He hugged Manh warmly at the end of the two-hour meeting. Cuba's Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) newspaper called the encounter "emotional, intense and fraternal."
"Vietnam is a country that we will never forget," said Castro, who visited Hanoi in 1973 in the midst of the Vietnam war with the United States.
Manh said Castro spoke at length about Cuba's "energy revolution" to save electricity, and they discussed the situation in Latin America.
"He was very happy. I was overcome with emotion. He spoke about many things. They were very deep," Manh said later at a meeting with Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage.
Acting President Raul Castro received Manh on Friday for the signature of agreements that included oil exploration in Cuba's Gulf of Mexico waters by Petrovietnam.
A senior Cuban official said on Friday that Fidel Castro had almost recovered fully from several operations for an undisclosed intestinal condition that put his life at risk last year. But National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, speaking to CNN, gave no indication of when or if Castro might return to governing Cuba.
Castro bounced back into public life from his convalescence quarters two months ago by writing regular columns on world issues with virulent attacks on his ideological foe, U.S. President George W. Bush.
A Bush administration official said on Saturday the United States will have to wait until Castro dies to see political change in his communist-ruled Caribbean island.
"He (Castro) has tilted Cuba toward the failed model that exists today, and we'll have to wait and see if the future is better when he is no longer around," U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Reuters in an interview.
His comments appeared to mark a dramatic shift from just a few months ago, when Gutierrez said Cuba was at a "critical juncture" in its history and poised for change.
Castro, the last major player of the Cold War still around, has survived the hostility of 10 U.S. presidents.
Gutierrez, a Cuban-American, acknowledged that Bush may leave office without seeing the changes his administration has pushed for in Cuba by tightening sanctions enforced since 1962 against Castro's government.
(Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami)