'Healthy' Castro interviewed on Cuban TV

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Fidel Castro unexpectedly appeared on Cuban state television for an hour-long interview last night, after officials excitedly broke into scheduled programming.

Mr Castro, 81, who is convalescing from a long illness, had not been seen in public since 31 July 2006 when he underwent emergency intestinal surgery. There have been no official photographs or video shots of him since 5 June.

Wearing a red, blue and white jumpsuit with "F. Castro" in small block letters, he mentioned the price of oil and the soaring value of the euro against the dollar, which Cuban officials said was evidence that the video was recorded yesterday. Mr Castro often trailed off mid-sentence, and needed some prompting, the Associated Press reported. But he got into his stride as time passed and his eyes and facial expression were said to be clear.

The interview focused on a recent newspaper article by Mr Castro on international affairs, the risks to the global economy and criticism of the US.

But it was less the content of his interview than the fact that the veteran Cuban leader seems to be returning to form that has excited Cuban officials. They have maintained all along that Mr Castro is on the road to recovery, disproving US rumours that he was terminally ill.

Earlier this summer Mr Castro said candidates for the US presidential election in 2008 were "totally absorbed" by efforts to win the support of Cuban exiles. Cuba is a toxic issue for US politicians and the expatriate lobby in Miami and New Jersey has the capacity to greatly influence the coming election.

In the video, Mr Castro spoke slowly and softly, without looking his interviewer in the eye. Those who saw the interview said he was obviously quite lucid and thinking clearly.

Earlier in the day his political ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Mr Castro had a "little problem" with his health.

"Castro has a little problem, but he can live another 100 years with this little problem," Mr Chavez said.

It is more than a year since he underwent intestinal surgery and provisionally ceded power to his younger brother, Raul.

"Castro had three operations, and he's 81, imagine that," said Mr Chavez, "they changed almost all the blood with transfusions. Fidel is alive because he is Fidel."

In his article for the Cuban newspaper Gramma, Mr Castro said the only one of nine US presidents in office during his rule who he respected was Jimmy Carter because he wasn't an "accomplice" to efforts to overthrow the Cuban government.

The lesson of the 2000 election – when George Bush came to power by securing Florida's Electoral College votes while winning fewer ballots nationally than Al Gore – is that all candidates will now seek the backing of Cuban exiles in the state, Mr Castro said. "Florida is the prize everyone aspires to, because of the presidential votes it provides," he wrote.

Mr Castro's medical condition and ailment remain state secrets, but in one of his signed essays he wrote that he had undergone multiple surgery.