HAVANA -- Fidel Castro sent Cubans a sober greeting on his 80th birthday Sunday, saying he faces a long recovery from surgery -- and warning they should be prepared for "adverse news." But he encouraged them to be optimistic and said Cuba "will continue marching on perfectly well."
As a newspaper printed the first pictures of Castro since his illness, his younger brother, Raul, made his first public appearance as Cuba's acting president. State TV showed him at the airport greeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on his arrival to celebrate Fidel's birthday.
Castro, who underwent surgery for an unspecified intestinal ailment that forced him to step aside as president two weeks ago, said in a statement that his health had improved, but stressed he still faced risks.
"To affirm that the recovery period will take a short time and that there is no risk would be absolutely incorrect," said the statement in the Communist Youth newspaper, Juventud Rebelde. "I ask you all to be optimistic, and at the same time to be ready to face any adverse news."
The Communist Party's newspaper, Granma, had offered a rosier picture of Castro's condition on Saturday, saying he was walking and talking again, and even working a bit. It compared him to a resistant tropical hardwood tree found in eastern Cuba, where he was born.
News of Castro's surgery had made Cubans uneasy about the future, but a series of upbeat statements from government officials had helped calm a public that is having to face up to the mortality of the island's longtime leader.
Juventud Rebelde also published four photographs of Castro, giving the first view of the leader since July 26, when he gave two speeches in eastern Cuba. He looked a bit tired, but sat up straight, his eyes alert.
Wearing a red, white and blue Adidas warm-up jacket -- the colors of the Cuban flag -- Fidel was shown talking on the phone and holding Saturday's newspaper published as a homage to him.
The photos were credited to Estudios Revolucion, a division of Castro's personal support group that collects historic documents and images. There was no reason to doubt they were real.
Although Castro's assessment of his own condition was tempered, many Cubans interviewed seemed joyful to receive proof that he was alive and getting around.
The normally vibrant Cuban society has appeared somewhat subdued since Castro announced his illness, with some privately expressing fears for the nation's future.
"What happiness I received!" exulted an elderly Margot Gomez after seeing the newspaper during a morning walk in Havana. "Long live Fidel and long live the revolution! He knows what to do to convert setbacks into victories!"
"He's alive, he's recovering," taxi driver Fernando Lopez said happily when he learned of Castro's statements and photographs.
Dozens of children in the Old Havana neighborhood celebrated Castro's birthday with a blindfolded boxing match and other games, as well as with a cake that read "Always With You Fidel." The boys and girls cheered and shouted "Long live Fidel!" after singing "Happy Birthday" for the Cuban leader.
"We wish him much happiness and that he gets well soon!" said a little girl in the group, Maria Julia Rodriguez.
Wearing his typical olive green uniform, Raul Castro, the defense minister who is serving as provisional president during his brother's recovery, saluted and hugged Chavez when the Venezuelan leader arrived at midday for a meeting with the elder Castro, his friend and ally in opposing U.S. policies.
The state television broadcast was the first time the younger Castro had been seen publicly since becoming interim president July 31.
Neither man commented during the broadcast, but Chavez told reporters Saturday that he was going to visit Fidel Castro on his birthday. "I'll take him a nice gift, a good cake, and we'll be celebrating the 80 years of this great figure of America and our history," Chavez said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin joined those sending birthday greetings to the Cuban leader and wished him a speedy recovery.
Just outside the capital, the government's minister for the sugar industry, Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, reiterated his support for the Castro brothers.
"After Fidel, Raul is the man who is in the best condition to direct the destinies of this nation, either at Fidel's side or when he is no longer here," Rosales del Toro told reporters.
The sugar minister was directing a crew of Foreign Ministry officials working in the fields to show their support for Castro on his birthday.
In his statement, Castro said: "I feel very happy. For all those who care about my health, I promise to fight for it."
"To the people of Cuba, infinite gratitude for your loving support. The country is marching on and will continue marching on perfectly well," Castro said.
On the Net:
Juventud Rebelde: http://www.juventudrebelde.cu