HAVANA — Former President Fidel Castro used his most prominent television interview since falling seriously ill four years ago to discuss everything from the threat of global nuclear war to the use of energy efficient light bulbs.
The one thing the 83-year-old revolutionary leader did not discuss in his return to the airwaves Monday was events in Cuba, where the government freed and sent into exile the first of 52 political prisoners it has promised to release in coming months.
Why Castro agreed to go on the air Monday after so long in the background was a mystery, as are so many things involving the former Cuban leader, who has spent a lifetime keeping the world guessing. Castro provided no answers in the hour and 15 minute conversation on "Mesa Redonda" – or "Round Table" – a daily Cuban talk show on current events.
Castro wore a dark blue track suit top over a plaid shirt. He looked relaxed and lucid, though his voice was raspy and he spoke slowly.
Much of the interview was spent with either Castro reading essays by someone else or having his own words read back to him by presenter Randy Alonso. Three academics sat silently nearby as Castro spoke, sometimes nodding in agreement.
Castro warned that an attack on Iran would be catastrophic for America.
"The worst (for America) is the resistance they will face there, which they didn't face in Iraq," he said.
The scene at a sparsely lit office at an undisclosed location was slightly surreal, even in a country that often feels stuck in a 1950s time warp. It was even unclear whether the interview was live or when it might have been taped.
At one point, Castro referred to a July 5 article as having been published six days ago, which would mean the show was taped on Sunday. Later, however, the program's host read from an essay published Sunday evening, referring to it as having come out "last night."
As the interview progressed, Castro at times showed flashes of his prowess as a powerful speaker. At other points, however, he paused for lengthy periods and shuffled pages of notes he kept in front of him. Later, he listened as the host read back long tracks from essay's Castro himself wrote recently.
The former Cuban leader has shunned the spotlight since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. The illness forced him to step down – first temporarily, and later permanently – and cede power to his younger brother Raul. His recovery has been a closely held state secret, and his health has been the subject of persistent rumors among exiles in Florida.
Castro remains head of Cuba's Communist Party and continues to publish his thoughts on world events in opinion pieces.
While Cubans have become accustomed to reading Castro's writings, he has stayed largely out of the public eye since ceding power, helping Raul Castro solidify his place as the country's leader after a lifetime spent in his more famous brother's shadow.
Monday's highly anticipated interview was announced in a front-page story in the Communist Party daily Granma earlier in the day. Castro has appeared in videotaped interviews with Cuban television in June and September 2007, but Monday's appearance was the most advertised and extensive.
Photos of the elder Castro greeting workers at a science center were published in pro-government blogs and on state media over the weekend, the first time he has been photographed in public since his illness.
Following Monday's interview, Cuban media showed footage of workers watching Castro on large screens set up at their workplaces.
On the street, Cubans reacted with surprise to word of Castro's relative media blitz.
"I think it will have a positive effect on people," 21-year-old student David Suarez told the AP. "It will give hope that once again he will help to solve our problems."
Magaly Delgado Rojo, a 72-year-old retiree in Havana's Playa neighborhood, said the appearances must have been carefully thought out by Cuban leadership.
"The photos and now the 'Round Table' appearance are meant to send a message: 'I am here and I am on top of everything. ... I am a part of every decision that is being made,'" she said. "This is not casual at all. This is calculated."
The two Castros have ruled Cuba since overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Cuba has occasionally released pictures showing Castro in private meetings with dignitaries, most recently during a visit in February by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. But he had not been photographed in a public setting since 2006.
Castro appeared in a 50-minute taped interview with Alonso of "Mesa Redonda" in June 2007 to discuss Vietnam and other topics. He also appeared on Cuban television for an hourlong interview in September of that year, knocking down a slew of rumors of his death.
A month later, he phoned in to a live broadcast featuring Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close Castro ally who was visiting Cuba. Castro sounded healthy and in good humor, but he was not seen.
On the Web:
Cubavision television (Spanish): http://www.cubavision.cubaweb.cu/tv_cubana.asx
Cuban Radio Rebelde (Spanish): http://media.enet.cu/radiorebelde