Fidel Castro appears on television to talk about Iran and North Korea

Fidel Castro spoke slowly, but appeared relaxed and cogent in his most prominent television interview in years. The 83-year-old former Cuban president has shunned the spotlight since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. (July 12)
By William Booth
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

MEXICO CITY -- Fidel Castro returned to Cuban television Monday night, his first major appearance in years, as the aging, ailing revolutionary leader held forth on the dangers of possible nuclear confrontations in Iran and the Korean Peninsula.

He looked pretty good. Wearing a plaid shirt under a blue-gray track suit, the 83-year-old Castro spoke slowly but clearly. Sometimes he seemed out of breath, but he kept up a steady pace, jabbing or waving his hands to emphasize points.

The appearance was neither a real interview nor a speech, but rather a kind of a lecture, with a journalist as his prop. Castro sat behind a desk and occasionally relied on notes. He was thinner than before, but not gaunt. His eyes seemed focused. His beard was wispy gray.

"Castro may not return to power in Cuba, but he wants the world to know he's not finished," said Anya Landau French, director of the U.S-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. "For U.S. policymakers stubbornly holding out for a 'biological solution' to our Cuba policy, Fidel Castro dashed those hopes tonight."

Castro did not address the decades-long chasm between his country and the United States, nor did he discuss the great challenges facing Cuba. Instead he focused on relations between the United States and both Iran and North Korea.

"There are 20 million Iranians with military training," he warned, and he said he imagined that the "Korean Peninsula will be a sea of flames."

As Castro addressed his countrymen, Cuban officials quietly released seven political prisoners and put them and their families aboard a flight to Madrid -- part of an agreement last week to free dozens of such prisoners.

"He talked about all the problems of the world and not the problems in Cuba or what has been going on with the political prisoners," said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. "He wanted to take the attention away from Cuba."

Gomez added that the commandante also "sent a message to the Cuban government elite that he is still around and very much involved in the decision-making process."

"It's a little anticlimactic," Landau French said of the TV appearance, "because Cubans aren't thinking about Iran or about the United States. They're thinking about their pocketbooks, and about their country's difficult economic situation."

The Telesur network, which aired the broadcast, said it was live and not pre-taped.

A front-page article Monday in Cuba's Communist Party daily, Granma, announced that Castro would participate in a special installment of "Mesa Redonda," or "Round Table," the country's nightly public affairs gabfest, "to evaluate the dangerous events taking place in the Middle East."

The topic is a favorite one for Castro, a prolific essayist whose thoughts appear in state media and blogs under the headline "Reflections by Comrade Fidel," most recently on Sunday.

The Cuban dictator largely disappeared from public view in July 2006 after suffering a serious intestinal illness. He underwent surgery for what is believed to be diverticulitis.

In the years since, the public has caught only a few glimpses of him, such as meeting foreign dignitaries, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He had not been interviewed on television since June and September 2007, when he appeared weak and distant in videotaped sessions with state media.

The most recent and dramatic Castro sighting had come Wednesday, when the elder statesman -- wearing his now-trademark track suit -- was photographed greeting workers at a national science center. Images snapped by a mobile phone were posted on a pro-government blog.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company