- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

MIAMI

@Text.dropcap8:In a modest house described as free from the pretentiousness befitting a former president, legendary Cuban leader Fidel Castro entertained three members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus last week and demonstrated surprising vigor for a man given up for dead not long ago.

The 82-year-old Mr. Castro reportedly is suffering from an undisclosed gastrointestinal illness, which prompted him to anoint his brother, Raul, as his successor.

In the nearly three years since he stepped aside, Fidel has been rumored to have died more than a half-dozen times while remaining sequestered from the Cuban people he used to address regularly - and at great length - in public.

But Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, said the iconic Cuban leader “is doing well … sort of.”

“When he shook my hand, he held onto my arm with a firm grip,” Mr. Rush recalled, though he said Mr. Castro struggled to stand on his own.

During their lengthy meeting in Mr. Castro's house, which Mr. Rush likened to a “normal middle-class home in America,” the congressman said his host was not merely lucid, but well-informed about world events, particularly U.S. politics.

“You can't help but be impressed by how much he knows about our politics and the central issues [the United States] is facing,” said Mr. Rush.

He added that Mr. Castro “stands in the same aura and awesomeness of great leaders” he has met, including the late Martin Luther King.

The congressional visit came just days before the Obama administration's announcement Monday of an end to restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to and sending money to relatives in Cuba.

The delegation, led by Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, was lambasted in the pages of the Miami Herald for failing to meet with families of imprisoned political dissidents or with journalists critical of the Castro government.

Despite the criticism, Cuban Americans and analysts were fascinated by the descriptions of Mr. Castro, who seems to have recovered somewhat from the illness that nearly killed him three years ago.

“I can't believe that he is in firm control of his intellectual faculties,” said Francisco Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

The Cuban's health and well-being have been the subject of much speculation, particularly as to whether he remains a player in Cuban politics and policymaking.

These days, reports about Mr. Castro's health come via the occasional report from visiting leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who regularly refers to the former Cuban leader as his “father.”

For a while, the former Cuban president had discontinued his daily written commentary about Cuba and world politics in the pages of the state-run Cuban news media.

But in recent months, his editorials have returned, though not every day.

“He admitted to me he can't work like he used to,” Mr. Rush said.

His health limitations aside, Fidel Castro remains a major player in Cuban affairs, according to younger brother and now president, Raul Castro.

Mr. Rush said Raul Castro told the visiting U.S. lawmakers that while he is the president, “Fidel is the chief.”

Just how their relationship translates into Cuban governance remains a mystery.

The U.S. delegation said the Castro brothers want to have talks with the United States, though the subject of possible concessions by the Cuban government - such as free elections and the release of political prisoners - was not discussed.

Mr. Rush said that he and other lawmakers “didn't want to press” the elder Mr. Castro on Cuba's human rights record and the issue of imprisoned dissidents.

Cuba specialists such as Brian Latell, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America and author of a Raul Castro biography, said it is “impossible to know the reality of the situation” though Fidel “does appear stronger.”

“I think the relationship [between Fidel and Raul] has always been a partnership,” said Mr. Latell.

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