August 23, 2009 / 2:53 PM / 10 years ago

Cuba publishes photo of fit-looking Fidel Castro

* Castro, 83, shown meeting with Ecuadorean president

* Photograph shows him standing, in short-sleeved shirt

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, Aug 23 (Reuters) - An official Cuban newspaper on Sunday published a photograph of 83-year-old former President Fidel Castro apparently in good health and meeting visiting Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

The photograph of Castro, covering most of the front page of the Juventud Rebelde newspaper, showed a fit-looking Castro standing and wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt in his meeting with Correa, who began a private visit to Cuba a few days ago.

Castro, the leader of Cuba’s 1959 revolution that brought Communism to the Caribbean island, has remained out of public view for the last three years and in 2008 handed over the presidency to younger brother Raul Castro for health reasons.

Various photographs of Fidel Castro meeting heads of state and other visitors have been released outside Cuba and on the Internet in recent months. But access to the Internet is severely restricted in Cuba.

The Juventud Rebelde photograph of the former leader was the first published inside the country by state media since Feb. 17, when Fidel Castro met Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

A brief official note said Fidel Castro and Correa, who is in Cuba for a rest, relaxation and a medical check-up, talked for a number of hours on Friday about recent developments in their respective countries, Latin America and the world.

While Fidel Castro, who turned 83 on Aug. 13, leaves day-to-day running of the government largely to his brother Raul Castro, who is 78, he remains influential behind the scenes and writes regular commentaries for state-run media.

Castro’s health has visibly improved in recent months. The brothers say they consult on all important matters of state.

According to accounts given by people who have visited Fidel Castro, he is living at home on the outskirts of Havana with his wife in a retirement villa that has a small gymnasium and pool.

As Cubans gathered at kiosks on Sunday morning to pick up the paper, word spread that Fidel Castro’s photo had appeared.

“I’m waiting for the paper to see him because it’s been a long time since a photo was published and I want to see how he is,” Arturo Martinez said, waiting for the paper to arrive a few blocks from Communist Party and government headquarters.

The last video of Fidel Castro appeared in June 2008 in a meeting with Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Although he has handed over the reins to Raul Castro, Fidel Castro has stayed defiant against what he portrays as continuing U.S. efforts to end the socialist system in Cuba he led and defended for nearly half a century.

He has said Cuba will not surrender, playing down steps taken this year by U.S. President Barack Obama to improve ties with Havana. Obama has said he will keep the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on the island to press the Cuban leadership to improve human rights and grant political freedoms. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Stacey Joyce)

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