Former President Fidel Castro addressed Cuba's parliament in his first public government act in four years Saturday, and appealed to world leaders, including President Barack Obama, to avoid a nuclear war.
The return of the veteran 83-year-old Cuban revolutionary to the National Assembly, transmitted live by Cuban state television, crowned a spate of recent public appearances after a long period of seclusion due to illness.
It was his first participation in a public government meeting since 2006, when intestinal surgery forced a lengthy absence. It was bound to revive speculation he might be seeking a more active role again in communist-ruled Cuba's leadership.
In 2008, he formally handed over the presidency of the Caribbean country to his younger brother Raul Castro.
The bearded leader of Cuba's revolution, who retains his parliament seat and the post of First Secretary of the Communist Party, dressed in long-sleeved green military fatigues, but without rank insignias, for the session.
After being helped to walk in and being greeted by a standing ovation and shouts of "Viva Fidel," he used the meeting to expound again his recent warnings that U.S. pressure against Iran could push the world to a nuclear conflagration.
In a 12-minute prepared speech delivered in a firm but sometimes halting voice, he urged world leaders to persuade Obama not to unleash a nuclear strike against Iran.
Castro said such an attack could occur if Iran resisted U.S. and Israeli efforts to enforce international sanctions against it for its nuclear activities.
"Obama wouldn't give the order if we persuade him … we're making a contribution to this positive effort," he told the special assembly session, which had been requested by him.
He said he was sure that China and "the Soviets" — an apparent reference to Russia, the former Soviet Union — did not want a world nuclear war and would work to avoid it.
Castro also referred to the case of one of five convicted Cuban spies jailed in the United States, Gerardo Hernandez, saying he hoped his wife would be allowed to visit him or that he could even be released.
President Raul Castro also attended the assembly session, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. Deputies made observations on Castro's speech, congratulating him and agreeing with him.
But Fidel Castro later appeared to tire after exchanging views with the deputies, and Cuban parliament head Ricardo Alarcon suggested ending the session after 1-1/2 hours.
"That's what I have to say, comrades, nothing more, I hope we can meet again at another time," Castro said in brief closing remarks in which he asked whether the parliamentarians had obtained copies of his new book, "The Strategic Victory," on the guerrilla war that brought him to power in 1959.
The session finished with applause.
"BACK IN ACTION"
"I've been watching Fidel, he looks the same as ever, looks well," said Graciela Hernandez, a 67-year-old Cuban pensioner who saw Castro on television. "He's got better and he's back in action. Fidel's a real (Don) Quixote," she said.
"It's a rebirth. It'll give us strength to continue the struggle," Graciela Biscet, 43, an assembly deputy from Santiago de Cuba, told reporters.
Following his 2006 illness, Fidel Castro disappeared from public view and was only seen occasionally in photographs and videos. But since July 7, he has emerged from four years of seclusion and has made several public appearances.
Analysts and Cuba-watchers have given varied interpretations of what the recent spate of Fidel Castro appearances might mean.
Some say the legendary comandante's influence has remained strong on the Cuban leadership, and that this has put a brake on more liberalizing reforms of Cuba's socialist system, or on any attempts to improve relations with the United States, which maintains a trade embargo against the island.
But others argue his appearances are intended to show support for his younger brother Raul as the latter tries to revive the stagnated economy with cautious reforms and steer Cuba out of a severe economic crisis.
Others say the veteran statesman may just want to get back into the limelight.
Fidel Castro, who has also predicted a U.S. clash with North Korea, urged Obama Wednesday to avoid a nuclear war, which he had described as "now virtually inevitable."
The former president has met Cuban diplomats, economists and intellectuals over the last month, as well as visiting the national aquarium and launching his new book.
But Fidel Castro has remained mute, at least in public, on the cautious domestic reform policies of his younger brother, which included a recent announcement that more self-employed workers would be allowed in the state-dominated economy.
He has, however, kept up regular commentaries since 2007 on international affairs, published by state media. These focus especially on his favorite subjects, such as his views on the threat to humanity posed by U.S.-led capitalism and by global warming.