Fidel Castro made a rare appearance on Cuban television Monday night, emerging from virtual seclusion and offering his most lengthy, publicly aired comments in years. He looked aged, his face drawn, but in decent health.
HAVANA - What he said mattered so much less than the fact he said it, or said anything at all.
Fidel Castro made a rare appearance on Cuban television Monday night, emerging from virtual seclusion and offering his most lengthy, publicly aired comments in years. He looked aged, his face drawn, but in decent health. His chosen theme: the threat of nuclear war in the world - something for which he suggested the United States had a big responsibility.
The TV gig on the popular evening news chat program Mesa Redonda (Round Table) followed the publication over the weekend of the first photographs showing Castro mingling with the public since he fell ill in 2006. They were taken as he visited Havana's National Scientific Research Center last week.
His health forced him to turn over formal control of the government to younger brother Raul in 2006 after 49 years in power. Castro remains head of Cuba's Communist Party and continues to publish his thoughts on world events in newspaper opinion pieces.
The TV appearance also coincided with Cuba's decision to free 52 political prisoners, the most massive such release in a decade. The first of the prisoners were being readied yesterday for transfer to Spain.
Dressed in a track suit and plaid shirt, Castro, who turns 84 next month, opened his remarks with discussion of tensions between North and South Korea, mentioning the recent sinking of a South Korean naval ship and that incident's potential for inflaming the region.
"It would be a sea of flames," he said, echoing language used by the North Korean government.
Castro frequently consulted notes. Parts of his speech were occasionally slurred but he was lucid, firm, and relaxed.
He chastised the United States and Israel for what he believes is their campaign to fuel a perilous global arms race.
He said nuclear war could break out when the United States, in alliance with Israel, tries to enforce international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear activities.
"When they launch war, they're going to launch it there. It cannot help but be nuclear," he said. "I believe the danger of war is growing a lot. They are playing with fire," he said.
Castro's appearance lasted about an hour. It was not clear whether it was live or recorded.
Did his decision to take to the airwaves mean he objected to the release of the prisoners, all of whom were jailed in a crackdown on the opposition in 2003 while Castro was still in power? Was he trying to upstage the release, or distract attention from it? If so, he didn't let on, sticking to international and not domestic politics.
Cubans reacted with surprise to word of Castro's relative media blitz.
"I think it will have a positive effect on people," 21-year-old student David Suarez told the Associated Press. "It will give hope that once again he will help to solve our problems."
Magaly Delgado Rojo, a 72-year-old retiree in Havana, said the appearances must have been carefully thought out by Cuban leadership.
"The photos and now the Round Table appearance are meant to send a message: 'I am here and I am on top of everything. ... I am a part of every decision that is being made,'•" she said. "This is not casual at all. This is calculated."
The revolutionary leader had appeared in videotaped television interviews twice since his illness and emergency intestinal surgery, in June and September of 2007 - in part to dispel widely circulating rumors at the time that he was dead.