Havana, Cuba CNN —  

Cuban state media Saturday released images of a rare public appearance by former leader Fidel Castro, who met with a group of Venezuelans who were on a solidarity mission to the island.

It is the first time the ailing Castro appeared in public in more than a year.

“Fidel is full of vitality,” the Juventud Rebelde newspaper exclaimed. Castro, 88, has made infrequent appearances following a mystery intestinal ailment that nearly killed him in 2006.

The newspaper showed pictures of Castro shaking hands with a crowd of people sticking their hands through the window of a bus where he was sitting.

The “chance meeting,” Juventud Rebelde said, took place on March 30 at a primary school in Havana that a group of 33 Venezuelans were visiting when Castro arrived.

Venezuela is one of Cuba’s closest allies and sends the nation tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day in exchange for Cuban doctors, soldiers and spo