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The art of Fidel Castro's public night out

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Cubavision via APTN/AP

(Read caption) In this frame grab of video released by Cubavision, Cuba's former President Fidel Castro attends the inauguration of the cultural center, Studio Kcho Romerillo, Laboratory for Art, in Havana, Cuba, late Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014.

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Fidel Castro’s Cuba is frequently criticized for its limiting of freedom of expression, but it was a modern art exhibit that drew the communist ex-president out in public for the first time in nine months last night.

Former President Castro, walking with the help of a cane, attended the opening of Estudio Romerillo, a nonprofit cultural center dedicated to promoting the arts.

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The Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, said the octogenarian visited the studio last night, on the 55th anniversary of his entry into Havana leading the Rebel Army.

The gallery contained the works of modern artists Alexis Leyva, known as “Kcho,” and Wifredo Lam. Cubadebate, an official government website, published one photo today in which Castro is seated in a chair, pointing to one of the works of art.

“Lam, you’re indispensible,” Castro told the artist, according to the paper.

It was the first time the ex-president has been sighted in public since April 2013, when he was seen at a school opening in Havana.

Castro led Cuba for 48 years, a period marked by hostile relations with the United States, heavy governmental regulation, and tight controls on the economy, jobs, political rights, and civil liberties. Washington-based Freedom House’s 2013 report gave the country a 6.5 on its freedom rating, which runs on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the worst.

Artists have long been an exception to controls placed on most Cuban citizens, however. They often earn far more than the $20 or so per month paid to workers, while enjoying more freedoms than the average citizen.

His health ailing, Castro stepped down in 2008, turning over duties to his brother, President Raul Castro, who has taken small steps to open up the economy. In recent years, the elder Castro has made few public appearances.

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Last month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro visited Castro and posted photos of the two men examining copies of battlefield maps.