U.S. intelligence officials are analyzing newly released video of Cuban leader Fidel Castro for clues about his health and political viability, NBC News has learned.
The CIA has a medical intelligence unit that has long tracked the health of Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, now the country’s president. But the CIA’s political analysts are equally interested in the new video, released Tuesday, since it also shows the two brothers interacting. Raul Castro succeeded his brother in February. Fidel Castro had last been seen a month earlier, meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
In Tuesday’s release, the two Castros were shown meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez told reporters afterwards that he and the Castros had spoken for five hours over two days and had “walked in the garden.” U.S. intelligence officials believe the video was recorded in the gardens of Punto Cero, Fidel Castro’s modest family compound west of Havana.
This is, the official said, the first time Fidel has met with a visiting dignitary since being succeeded by his brother. Raul had to be there or there might be confusion in Cuba as to who is actually in charge, the U.S. official noted.
For years prior to the handover of power, U.S. intelligence officials believed that Raul Castro would be hamstrung politically by such perceptions, if Fidel Castro were incapacitated for a long time. However, they concede that Raul has managed perceptions so well (helped perhaps inadvertently by videos showing how frail Fidel Castro has become) that that does not appear to be an issue, either domestically or internally. Fidel Castro had abdominal surgery in July 2006.
In addition to the presence of Raul Castro on the video, the official also noted:
* For the first time, Fidel Castro was seen meeting a dignitary outdoors. The analysis is that this is intended to show Fidel Castro as engaged and relaxed, rather than close to death, as many believe.
* The video was carefully edited, apparently to show Fidel Castro as animated and alert. It totaled two minutes and 24 seconds.
* There was no clumsy attempt to show Fidel Castro moving around, as there had been in a video released last year. The official described that video as “looking like a drunk [DUI] stop.” Fidel Castro was seen trying to display good balance and exercising. “Whoever put that together should be out cutting cane,” said the official. “Or spending time at Villa Marista,” he added, alluding to Cuba’s most notorious prison.
* The video was silent, prohibiting analysts from determining the strength of Fidel’s voice. That is likely to be noted by the Cuban public as well.
* This may have been an attempt to quell rumors, which have raced through South Florida in the last week, that Fidel Castro had died. “The timing could have been meant to stick it to the Miami Cubans,” said the official.
There is no doubt that Castro is dying, said the U.S. official, “we just don’t know when.”
Cuban officials tell NBC’s Havana producer Mary Murray that while Fidel Castro is staying “active and informed about decisions,” he will never appear again in public. “It is only a matter of time,” said one, implying that his life is coming to an end.