Castro suggests he may relinquish power

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The Independent US

He has ruled his communist isle in the Caribbean for almost five decades, but yesterday the people of Cuba were waking up to a new reality: the possibility that Fidel Castro, already laid low for 16 months by serious stomach surgery, may at last be preparing to voluntarily relinquish his leadership role.

In remarks that could herald a new turning point for the country, President Castro, who turned 81 in August, indicated that he did not intend to "cling to positions" or "obstruct the path of younger people".

Mr Castro temporarily transferred power to his younger brother, Raul, the Defence Minister, after falling ill in July 2006. He has not been seen in public since then but has made various taped appearances this year, designed in part to quell rumours that his illness had brought him to the brink of death.

The leader whose communist revolution toppled the government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 has attempted to remain relevant with weekly newspaper columns and commentaries on the direction of the government under Raul, and on world affairs.

His favourite theme in these often rambling essays has been to denounce his ideological nemesis, the United States, and its leader, George Bush. Indeed, Monday's instalment was largely about the climate change talks that have just ended in Bali and the isolation there of the American delegation.

But it ended with something different his first public acknowledgement since falling ill that the time may be approaching when he should consider formally stepping aside and giving up the party posts that make him the last surviving world leader from the Cold War era. "My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, or even less to obstruct the path of younger people, but to share experiences and ideas whose modest worth comes from the exceptional era in which I lived," Mr Castro wrote.

Despite his continuing incapacitation and the passing of day-to-day government to his brother, Mr Castro officially remains the President of Cuba's Council of State, which makes him the head of government and state. He also remains First Secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

The timing of his remarks is important as Cuba prepares for a nationwide election next month to choose the 614 members of the National Assembly, which must then elect before 5 March members of the Council of State. Only members of the National Assembly can serve on the ruling Council of State.

Mr Castro was recently nominated once again to run for the National Assembly, a development that spurred speculation that he meant to retain the country's leadership. But his remarks this week now suggest that even if elected to the Assembly, he will decline to stand for the Council of State.

As usual, however, his true intentions remain opaque. Even as he referred to his possible withdrawal, Mr Castro paid tribute to the noted Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who just turned 100. "I think, like Niemeyer, you have to be of consequence until the end," he wrote, suggesting, at least, that he intends to retain in an advisory role to whatever new leadership might emerge. There was hope among dissidents 16 months ago that Mr Castro's illness was the dawn of reform and a return to democracy in Cuba. But, in spite of Raul's reputation for a more practical approach to governing and running the economy, not much has changed.

It may no longer be that Raul would automatically be the beneficiary of Fidel's official retirement. His reference to "younger people" on Monday suggests, instead, that Mr Castro may be looking beyond his brother to other prominent figures in the party of slightly lesser years. They might include his Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who is 42, or 56-year-old Carlos Lage, his Vice-President.

Cuba-watchers and the country's own citizens may have to wait a few more months before these questions are answered. But Mr Castro seems to want, at least, to give his people time to adjust to a future in which he will no longer loom so large. "We are ready, but we don't know what will come," said Ana Rosa Hernandez, a cinema usher in Havana. "We expect good things, nothing bad, we hope."

Cuba's next leader?

Raul Castro, 76

Younger brother of Fidel and Cuban Defence Minister. He was given temporary control in July 2006 after Fidel fell ill.

Felipe Perez Roque, 42

Foreign Minister since 1999 and a protg of Mr Castro. Also served as President's chief of staff.

Carlos Lage, 56

Vice-President who has served as Mr Castro's main economic adviser since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Richard Alarcon, 70

President of the National Assembly. He joined Mr Castro's revolution at 18.