Is Fidel Castro coming back?
The photos of a stronger and healthier Fidel Castro meeting with a high-level Chinese delegation published in Cuba's principal newspaper Saturday are perhaps the most significant sign so far that the ailing leader is not just getting better, but getting back to business too.
Castro and top members of his cabinet met Friday with Wu Guanzheng, a member of China's Communist Party Politburo who headed a delegation of visiting Chinese officials, the Granma daily reported.
"Companero Fidel exchanged ideas with the Politburo member for an hour," the paper said. "The encounter was very profound and fruitful."
Two pictures showed the 80-year-old Castro in a black and red jogging suit and looking generally healthy. They were a far cry from photos taken early into Castro's illness, which showed him severely underweight and laying in bed.
"I am impressed and surprised," said University of Miami Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies research associate Jorge Pinon. "I think it's a sign he's getting better."
Although Pinon said he doesn't not necessarily believe Castro will ever return to work as he once did, Saturday's photos were significant because of the senior rank of the foreign visitor.
If Castro was weak or incoherent, he would not have risked having that news spread through diplomatic circles, Pinon said. Showing Castro with Chinese leaders illustrates that he's not just physically looking better, but mentally prepared for such a meeting.
Prior to Saturday, Castro had mostly been photographed with close friends such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
On July 31, Castro's personal secretary read a statement said to be written by Castro, announcing that he had suffered intestinal bleeding and required surgery. The presidency was temporarily turned over to Castro's younger brother Raul, the defense minister.
While his health has remained a state secret, for months speculation abounded that Castro was on the brink of death. In January, the Spanish newspaper El Pais, citing sources close to doctors who examined him, said Castro had suffered life-threatening operations and infections resulting from diverticulitis, perforations of small pouches in the intestinal wall that weaken with age.
For months, senior Cuban cabinet members have insisted he was recovering and participating in government, but with a lighter work load. In the first signs that Castro was in fact feeling better, in the past weeks he published three editorials in the Cuban state media.
He railed against the use of food crops to produce ethanol, saying it would deprive the world's poor of food. Another article attacked the United States, saying Washington was protecting accused terrorist Luis Posada Carriles.
"Clearly this is the first picture of him working as opposed to convalescing," said Cuba expert Philip Peters, of the Lexington Institute think tank in Virginia. "It's definitely important, because three months ago, the psychology was that he wasn't coming back at all. This changes that."
Peters said early signs that Raul Castro was planning economic reforms seem to have tempered, suggesting Fidel is reining his brother in.
The Cuban media recently announced that a much-lauded academic commission formed to study problems with Cuba's system of socialist property would issue a report - within three years.
"That's a deep freeze," Peters said. "That is a sense that Fidel is coming back."
Other experts cautioned against reading too much into Saturday's photos, saying that if anything, they underscore the importance of China to Cuba. Saturday's Granma also showed pictures of the Chinese delegation meeting with Raul Castro, who has been known to favor Beijing's economic model.
Behind Venezuela, China has become a major trade partner with Cuba. The new household appliances in Cubans' homes and fleet of new buses whizzing down the highways were provided by China at favorable terms.
Trade with China last year doubled to nearly $2 billion, Cuban officials have said.
"Major decisions about the direction of the Cuban revolution will be something the old man will continue to have influence over," said National War College professor Frank Mora, who said there have been too many other signs that Castro has stepped aside and his brother is in charge.