ANITA SNOW | Associated Press
Cheered by hundreds of lawmakers, a smiling Fidel Castro walked in public Thursday for the first time since shattering his kneecap in a fall two months ago.
Legislators looked stunned, then smiled and applauded, when Cuba’s 78-year-old president entered the main auditorium of the Convention Palace on the arm of a uniformed schoolgirl to attend a year-end National Assembly meeting.
“Long live Fidel!” a lone deputy shouted as Castro took his seat, followed by a shout of “Long live a free Cuba!”
Castro’s quick recovery from breaking his left kneecap into eight pieces was likely to dampen the latest round of rumors questioning his health.
Because of his larger than life role in Cuba, his well-being has become a continual source of speculation, both on and off the island, as he has grown older.
The man who has ruled this communist country for nearly 46 years has emphasized he remains firmly in control of the government’s daily affairs ever since he stumbled and fell after a speech in October.
Castro is the world’s longest ruling head of government and among the longest presiding heads of state. Britain’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, was crowned in 1953 - six years before Castro’s triumph in the Cuban Revolution.
In his role as president of Council of State, the Cuban government’s executive body, Castro also controls one of the five remaining communist states in the world, and the only one in the Western Hemisphere. The others are in Asia: China, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos.
Wearing his olive green uniform, Castro stood erect Thursday, walking slowly and stiffly about 100 yards across the full front row of the assembly, then up the stairs to the main stage, where he took a seat next to his younger brother and designated successor, 73-year-old Defense Minister Raul Castro.
Along with the schoolgirl, two men stood nearby as Castro climbed the stairs - one of the hardest things to do after breaking a kneecap, doctors say.
At one point, Castro stopped and extended his arm in greeting to national and international journalists covering the meeting.
Castro is also a National Assembly deputy and he almost always participates in the occasional sessions held each year. During the morning meeting, he frequently consulted with aides about the annual report by Economics Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez and chatted animatedly with his brother.
Castro made headlines around the globe when he fell Oct. 20 in the central city of Santa Clara, also breaking his right arm. Initially immobilized in a sling, the arm evidently healed in a few weeks.
After staying out of the spotlight for several weeks, Castro began making public appearances again, often seated in a wheelchair.
In November, he surprised many when he suddenly stood up from his wheelchair during a state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, leaning on a metal cane with an arm support. Last week, he stood unassisted for several minutes during a visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Until Thursday, however, he had not been seen walking in public.
In the last several years, Castro’s knees have seemed more wobbly, his step less steady. But given his age, he appears to be strong and maintains a busy schedule that frequently includes all-night meetings with aides and visitors.