Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Wednesday sent congratulations to a medical school graduation, his first reported but unconfirmed sign of life since widespread rumors last week that he was on his deathbed, in a coma or already dead.
Cubas official Prensa Latina news agency reported that Public Health Minister Roberto Morales had read Castros message during the graduation ceremony Friday at the Victoria de Girón Institute for Basic and Pre-Clinical Sciences in Havana.
The dispatch said diplomas signed by Castro and coins commemorating the schools 50th anniversary were handed out at the event, but provided no direct quotes from his message. The Castro photo published on the Prensa Latina web page seemed to have come from archives.
Indeed, the report seemed intended more than anything else to put to rest the rumors that the 86-year-old Castro, Cubas ruler from 1959 to 2006, had suffered a severe health emergency in recent days.
Castro has not been seen in public since he met in March with visiting Pope Benedict XVI, and has not written one of his opinion columns, known as reflections from Fidel, since June 19.
Several bouts of rumors about his ill health made the rounds during the summer, but they made headlines last week, when there was no word of a message from Castro congratulating Hugo Chávez, a key Havana ally, on his reelection to the Venezuelan presidency on Oct. 7.
One Venezuelan journalist critical of Chávez reported Thursday that Castros death would be announced within 72 hours, and there were other claims that the Cuban had suffered a stroke or was on life support.
Castro claims to have survived more than 600 efforts to assassinate him, and after each of the dozens of rumors about his death from natural causes, he has made public appearances to prove that he remained alive.
Castro underwent emergency surgery in 2006 for an undisclosed ailment that he later acknowledged had nearly killed him. His brother Raúl succeeded him, at first temporarily and then officially in 2008.