Some US officials said the image of an increasingly healthy Cuban leader suggests that a long-awaited transition to post-Castro government reforms would be put on hold. Others insisted that irreversible change is already under way.
Castro, who temporarily handed power to his brother Raul last July, had been seen in still photos and video footage since late last year. But today he appeared in his first television interview since his departure from power.
Castro, 80, once believed by US intelligence agencies to have terminal cancer, looked much healthier than just a few months ago and demonstrated his characteristic love for rambling deliveries replete with dry statistics.
But in Washington, officials said his continued appearance in a track suit, coupled with his slow speech, suggested that his recovery continues to be a slow one.
''The interview didn't convey the image of a vigorous leader.
What it shows is an 80-year-old man recovering and recovering slowly but continuing to recover,'' said one US official who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
''We've had still photos, taped video images and now this interview. They're plainly trying to show that this fellow is getting better. Could you expect to see more of these things? Certainly,'' the official added.
''But there hasn't been any clear statement that he is resuming duties.'' Washington, which has sought to isolate Cuba behind a 45-year-old economic embargo, has a poor record of forecasting events on the island nation.
But US intelligence officials say Havana has carefully crafted the public presentation of news and images of Castro to control popular expectations about his recovery.
The regime initially said he would be back in power within months but has since fallen silent on the question.
US officials now believe Castro, who has begun writing editorials about foreign policy issues, will return in only a limited capacity to some sort of policy decision-making post.
''The Cuban system has kept itself together with him in this state,'' the official said. ''As they continue to project an image of someone recovering, that shouldn't encourage speculation about changes in Cuban government policy. In fact, the opposite should be true.'' Others disagreed.
State Department spokesman Eric Watnik said Cuba was already in the throes of transition and that Castro's health was unlikely to alter matters.
''There is a certain understanding that although (Castro) has transferred some power to his brother, he's still there,'' said Watnik, who declined to discuss Castro's health.
''But our belief is that the transition is already under way.'' REUTERS AM RK2302