Ailing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro made a surprise appearance in Havana to vote in parliamentary polls, expressing confidence in the revolution despite a decades-long US trade embargo.
Castro had not been seen in public since 21 October, when he accompanied Elias Jaua, the current Venezuelan foreign minister, to the Hotel Nacional.
Castro's visit to the voting precinct in Havana's El Vedado neighborhood was the main event in Sunday's elections, during which Cubans chose 612 members of the National Assembly as well as deputies of local legislatures.
"I am convinced that Cuban are really a revolutionary people," 86-year-old Castro told reporters, who surrounded him at the polling station. "I don't have to prove it. History has already proven it. And 50 years of the US blockade have not been — nor will it be — able to defeat us."
The United States slapped a commercial, economic, and financial embargo against Cuba in October 1960 after Castro's revolutionary government nationalized the properties of United States citizens and corporations. It was broadened to become a near-total embargo in 1962 as Cuba's alliance with the Soviet block became apparent.
Images shown on Cuban TV as well as his pictures in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde showed a slightly stooped Castro with a cane in animated conversation with voters at the precinct. He wore a dark shirt and a bomber jacket.
In his comments, the revolutionary leader also praised the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), whose presidency Cuba formally assumed last week at a summit in Santiago, Chile.
Set up in Caracas in December 2011 at the behest of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, CELAC groups all nations from across the Americas except the United States and Canada.
The Cuban chairmanship of the group marked Havana's full regional reintegration and was seen as a major diplomatic coup for Havana.
"This was a step forward which we owe to the efforts of many people, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez," Castro told reporters and voters.
Chavez has not been seen or heard from since his last cancer operation on 11 December in Havana. But Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said Sunday the Venezuelan leader was now making steady progress in his recovery.
Castro, who rose to power after the 1959 revolution, ceded the presidency to his younger brother Raul, 81, in July 2006 for health reasons.
Castro's long absences from public view fueled rumors that his health has worsened, that he was dead or on his death bed — particularly since Castro has not published one of his usually frequent editorials in official state media since 19 June.
In the past five years since falling ill after serious intestinal surgery, Castro has penned about 400 editorials as well as books about the revolution, and welcomed a few international leaders in private events.
Last Thursday, according to state media reports, he hosted former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva.