Recovering Fidel Castro meets with top Chinese official

Campaign News | Saturday, 21 April 2007

Posted: 22 April 2007 0428 hrs

HAVANA : Cuba's President Fidel Castro met with a top Chinese official, the government said, in another sign the convalescing leader unofficially is back at work on more of his customary official duties.

Saturday, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma ran two still photos of a fitter-looking Castro, 80 -- his first official media picture since January 30. A third photo of Fidel Castro with his guest was run in the Juventude Rebelde newspaper.

The most recent prior photo of him, with Colombian author and friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was run by the Colombian daily El Tiempo last month.

In the new images, Castro appears in a brown and red track suit, both sitting and standing, and appeared to have gained back some of the weight he lost during his illness.

The official who met Castro, Wu Guanzheng, is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China. He reportedly brought a card for the Cuban leader from President Hu Jintao.

Wu arrived in Cuba Thursday for a four-day official visit that is part of a tour that includes Colombia and Chile.

The government of China "considers its relations with the Communist Party and the government of Cuba a matter of high importance," Wu said.

"For an hour, Fidel met with a member of the (Chinese Communist Party). The meeting was fruitful and touched on a number of issues," according to a government statement released on Friday.

The exchange was "an expression of the excellent relations that have developed between the two countries," especially since a 2004 visit by Hu.

After meeting with Fidel Castro, Wu saw his brother, acting president Raul Castro, 75, who has served in Castro's place since July, and discussed "national and international issues of interest to both countries and marked the excellent relations between the two parties, governments and peoples," the report said.

China is Cuba's second-most important trade partner after Venezuela, with two-way trade close to two billion dollars in 2006, and one of Cuba's main sources of credit.

After the talks, Raul Castro and Wu signed a bilateral agreement on economic and technical cooperation as well as a protocol on changes in a bilateral accord on investment protection.

Last August China urged non-interference in the affairs of Cuba, following comments by US President George W. Bush offering US support for "democratic change" in the Caribbean nation after Fidel had ceded power to his brother.

After almost five decades at the helm of the only communist country in the Americas, Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery last July and temporarily handed power to Raul Castro, the defense chief, July 31.

Fidel Castro's apparent progress on the health front now has sparked speculation in Cuba that he might make his first public appearance since July at massive May Day celebrations (May 1) in Havana's sprawling Revolution Square.

But until an official return to power is announced, Raul Castro formally remains Cuba's designated leader.

At September's Non-Aligned Movement summit hosted by Cuba in Havana, Fidel Castro met with 10 international visitors including seven heads of state or government. But they seemed more courtesy visits than affairs of state.

Cuban officials and ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have given updates on Castro's health in recent months, hinting he is set for a comeback, and defying predictions by his arch-nemesis, the United States, that his death was near.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said April 13 that Castro was putting on weight, exercising, keeping himself informed on world affairs and taking part in the decision-making process.

"The health of President Fidel Castro has improved notably," said Perez Roque during a three-day visit to Vietnam, Cuba's Communist ally. "He is improving continually and substantially."

Chavez, also on April 13, said Castro "has taken back a good part of government functions, but, of course, not formally."

- AFP /ls

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