HAVANA – Fidel Castro telephoned a meeting of provincial legislative leaders, the Communist Party daily said Saturday in a report apparently aimed at quelling rumors about the ailing Cuban leader’s health.

That call on Friday and another to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the same day constituted the first news in 11 days about the convalescing 80-year-old, who has not been seen in public in more than four months.

Even if Castro is not as sick as some believe – including many in the U.S. government – his prolonged absence from public life have raised questions about whether he will ever return to power.

Vice President Carlos Lage and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon were presiding over the Friday meeting of provincial assembly presidents when Castro called, Granma newspaper reported. The full National Assembly will hold a regular session Dec. 22 to vote on the island’s budget and other matters.

Chavez said in Caracas on Friday that Castro, a close friend and political ally, called him the same day to congratulate him on his re-election victory earlier this month.

The last news about Castro was issued on Dec. 5 when Granma published a typed letter signed by Castro congratulating Chavez on his electoral win.

Castro has not been seen in public since July 26, five days before he announced that he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was temporarily ceding his powers to his 75-year-old brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

The government has occasionally released photographs and videos of Castro since then in an attempt to show that his health is improving. He looked thin and frail in the last videos, released in late October.

Castro’s medical condition is a state secret. Cuban officials insist he is recovering, but U.S. officials say they believe he suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and will not live through the end of 2007.

Many Castro loyalists were deeply disappointed that he did not appear earlier this month during postponed birthday celebrations attended by more than 1,300 foreign admirers, or at a Dec. 2 military parade marking the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.


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