Havana, Cuba Cuban state television on Monday aired the first video of Fidel Castro since he stepped down as president to recover from surgery, showing the bedridden Cuban leader joking with his brother and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Castro appeared tired and pale, yet alert in the videotaped encounter, speaking quietly but clearly enjoying himself as he chatted with Chavez, his close friend and political ally. Acting president Raul Castro also was present for the encounter on Sunday, his brother's 80th birthday.
As the men bantered back and forth, Castro's voice was inaudible. He was later shown in animated conversation with Chavez, but music played over his words.
Chavez told Castro he sat down to pray when he learned of the Cuban leader's illness and operation, and said "that was a horrible day." But the Venezuelan leader also was optimistic, saying, "Your capacity to recover is impressive."
The videotape showed the friends sharing a snack and looking at an album of photographs showing them together - including one from a trip Castro took to Venezuela during an earlier birthday. Sentimental music accompanied the footage, which lasted about 10 minutes.
The televised footage - released after still pictures of the same encounter were published in the Communist Party daily Granma earlier Monday - appeared aimed at dispelling any lingering doubts about Castro's recovery from intestinal surgery. Cuban officials have not released details of his condition or disclosed where he is being treated.
"I was thinking the worst before," said 37-year-old Ernesto Fundora, who works at a tobacco factory. "Now I don't have any doubt that he's alive. But still, he could go at any minute."
Castro announced two weeks ago that he had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding and was putting his brother in charge while he recuperates. On his birthday, he released a statement saying his recovery would be long, and warned Cubans to prepare for "adverse news" - advice perhaps aimed at helping them come to terms with his eventual death.
Whether Castro gets back on his feet or permanently cedes control to Raul Castro, some say they expect much to remain the same.
"I don't think anything is going to change," said Valeria Ramos, 38, now unemployed as she cares for her disabled child. "Our people are united, and even if Fidel's no longer here, all of us Cubans will be.