HAVANA -- Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro spoke by telephone Friday to a gathering of government officials in what experts say is a likely effort to counter speculation that he is near death.
The Communist Party newspaper Granma reported yesterday that Castro called in, was briefed about the meeting's progress and then sent greetings to provincial legislative leaders attending the event at a convention center in Havana.
Castro's greeting provoked "happiness and enthusiastic applause" from the participants, Granma said. The newspaper also reported that Castro telephoned Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to congratulate his close ally on his re-election this month.
Chavez said Friday in Caracas that the two men had spoken twice by phone the day before. The Venezuelan leader said Castro is not suffering from cancer but is battling "serious illness."
The Granma report and Chavez's comments provide the first details in weeks about the health of the 80-year-old Cuban leader, who hasn't been seen in public since late July after undergoing intestinal surgery and ceding power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.
At the time, Fidel Castro said his health condition was a state secret, and Cuban authorities have since provided few details about Castro's illness.
Cuba's state-run news media have released photographs and brief videos of Castro, but the last images of Castro broadcast on Cuban television, in late October, showed him disoriented and weak.
Castro's absence this month from his delayed 80th birthday celebration and a military parade marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces further fueled speculation that he is near death.
Michael E. Parmly, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, traveled last week to Washington to brief U.S. officials about Castro's health. U.S. officials reportedly have a recent photograph of a frail-looking Castro lying in bed.
U.S. Intelligence chief John Negroponte said in an interview published Friday in The Washington Post that Castro had "months, not years" to live.
Gary Marx writes for the Chicago Tribune.