HAVANA -- Former Venezuelan Vice President Elías Jaua said yesterday that he met with aging revolutionary leader Fidel Castro for five hours and showed The Associated Press photos of the encounter, quashing persistent rumors that the former Cuban leader was on his deathbed or had suffered a massive stroke.

Jaua also confirmed that the 86-year-old retired president personally accompanied him to the Hotel Nacional after their meeting Saturday, in which they talked about politics, history, culture and tourism.

"He had the courtesy of bringing me to the hotel," Jaua said, adding that Castro looked "very well." Jaua showed a photograph of himself seated in a minibus along with Castro, Castro's wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, a hotel executive and several other people. The photo shows Jaua and Castro smiling broadly. He is wearing a checked shirt and cowboy hat.

The public appearance was Castro's first in months.

"Fidel Castro was here yesterday; he brought a guest and spoke to workers and hotel leaders for 30 minutes," commercial director Yamila Fuster said. Hotel director Antonio Martínez is seated next to Castro in the photo shown by Jaua.

Castro's health has been the subject of intense speculation for years, but the rumors gained force after he failed to publicly congratulate Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a top ally, on his Oct. 7 electoral victory. Castro has not appeared since March, when greeted Pope Benedict XVI, and he has also ceased writing his once-constant opinion pieces, the last of which appeared in June.

Castro stepped down in 2006 following a severe illness, handing power to his brother, Raúl.

Twitter and other social media sites have been abuzz with claims of Castro's demise. Late last week, a Venezuelan doctor purported to have information that Castro had suffered a stroke, but he has previously claimed knowledge that turned out to be false.

Yesterday's news from the Hotel Nacional appeared to be Cuba's attempt to hit back against what it says are false and malicious rumors.

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