HAVANA — Many Cubans took heart Friday in a new photograph showing Fidel Castro looking less gaunt than in his last image two months ago, even as the ailing Cuban leader told them he doubts he'll make it to the end of Barack Obama's four-year term.
The photograph was released early Friday, hours after Castro published an essay saying the government shouldn't let his words or even his death get in the way of running the country, another step in a two-year process of preparing Cubans for the inevitable.
But Cubans, many of whom have long viewed the 82-year-old as a father figure, rejected the idea that he is dying, saying he looks strong and healthy in the photo.
"He's going to last more than four years, much more," said chauffeur Yandy Rodriguez, 24. "Look how strong he looks."
"I hope he lasts another eternity. That's what we need," chimed in 26-year-old Yacel Ramos, who takes tourists through the streets of Old Havana on a horse-drawn carriage. "Now that I see him, I feel more comfortable."
The photograph, in which Castro appears with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez during a visit Wednesday, seemed aimed at quelling the latest round of rumors _ mostly in the Cuban exile community of South Florida _ that he was dead or dying.
But Castro wrote in an essay released Thursday night that he probably won't be around in four years, and instructed Cuban officials to stop taking him into account in their decisions. He said they shouldn't feel bound by his written words, "my state of health or my death."
The photograph, the first released since Nov. 18, shows Castro standing, wearing a dark Adidas track suit with red stripes on the sleeves and collar, and a dark T-shirt underneath. Fernandez stands to his left, grasping his arm and smiling.
Castro looks straight at the camera, expressionless, with eyes that seem somewhat glassy. His gray hair and beard are well-groomed, and he appears to have his right hand in his pocket.
The details captured in the image provide few clues to where it was taken. Behind Castro is a framed painting or sketch of what looks to be a long-haired, bearded farmer, and Fernandez stands before a closed wooden door. Those suggest the meeting may have occurred in a residence or government offices, rather than in a hospital.
Castro's exact ailment, his condition and his location have been state secrets since he fell ill in July 2006 and relinquished power to his brother Raul.
The long absence of any new images of Castro, and a five-week lull in his once-regular essays, sparked much speculation about his health, especially among anti-Castro Cubans in exile.
Equally fixated on Castro are his loyalists.
Nearly 2 1/2 years after Castro stepped aside, the island's state media is still filled with historical photographs and nostalgic accounts of his past exploits. The Communist Party newspaper Granma currently is running a daily column on the man who was Cuba's supreme leader for nearly a half-century, reprinting excerpts from his hundreds of lengthy speeches.
Although Raul Castro permanently assumed the presidency almost a year ago, the elder Castro's essays _ which he calls "Reflections" _ have carried much weight, regularly read word for word at the top of radio and television newscasts.
At times, they have even appeared to contradict the words of his brother, prompting speculation over who is really in charge. Fidel Castro said that shouldn't happen anymore.
"I have reduced the 'Reflections' as I had planned this year, so I won't interfere or get in the way of the (Communist) Party or government comrades in the constant decisions they must make," Castro wrote.
Associated Press Television producer Fernando Gonzalez contributed to this story.