Fidel Castro surprises with parliament appearance amid leadership speculation

HAVANA Mon Feb 25, 2013 12:32am IST

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, (L), attends the opening session of the National Assembly of the Peoples Power beside his brother, Cuban President Raul Castro, and First Vice President Ramon Machado Ventura, (R), in Havana February 24, 2013. REUTERS/AIN FOTO/Marcelino Vazquez

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, (L), attends the opening session of the National Assembly of the Peoples Power beside his brother, Cuban President Raul Castro, and First Vice President Ramon Machado Ventura, (R), in Havana February 24, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/AIN FOTO/Marcelino Vazquez

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro made a rare public appearance Sunday by joining the opening session of the National Assembly, state media reported amid speculation the gathering could give clues on planning for a future leadership succession.

Since falling ill in 2006 and ceding the presidency to his brother, Fidel Castro has given up all official positions except as a deputy in the National Assembly. At Sunday's session, he took his seat beside brother President Raul Castro, only the second time he has graced the assembly chambers since his illness and the first since 2010.

Fidel Castro's surprise appearance added to expectations, fueled by his brother, that the usually routine session might shed light on future leadership of the communist-run nation.

In a back and forth with reporters on Friday, Raul Castro joked about his eventual retirement and urged them to pay attention to Sunday's conclave, which is closed to foreign journalists.

"I'm going to turn 82; I have a right to retire already," he said. "You don't believe me? Why are you so incredulous?" he said.

The 612 deputies, who were elected in an uncontested vote February 3, are expected to name a new 31-member Council of State with Raul Castro as president, despite his quip.

The National Assembly meets for just a few weeks each year and delegates its legislative powers between sessions to the Council of State, which also functions as the nation's executive through the Council of Ministers it appoints.

Governments, Cuba watchers and Cubans will be watching to see if there are any new, and younger, faces among the Council of State members, in particular its first vice president and five vice presidents, with an average age over 70.

The new government is almost certain to be the last headed up by the Castro brothers and the generation that has ruled Cuba since they swept down from the mountains in the 1959 revolution that led to a long-running feud with Washington.

Raul Castro, 81, would begin his second term on Sunday, theoretically leaving him free to retire in 2018, aged 86.

Eighty percent of the parliament's 612 members, with an average age under 50, were born after the Revolution.

EFFORT TO PROMOTE YOUNGER GENERATION

Raul Castro, who officially replaced his ailing brother as president in 2008, has repeatedly called for senior leaders to hold office for no more than two, five-year terms.

"Although we kept on trying to promote young people to senior positions, life proved that we did not always make the best choice," Castro said at a Party Congress in 2011.

"Today, we are faced with the consequences of not having a reserve of well-trained replacements....It's really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century," he said.

The 2011 party summit adopted a more than 300-point plan to "update" Cuba's Soviet-style economic system, designed to transform it from one based on collective production and consumption to one where individual effort and reward play a far more important role.

Across-the-board subsidies are being replaced by the country's first comprehensive tax code and targeted welfare.

Fidel Castro, these days referred to as the "historic leader of the revolution," is no longer seen as wielding real power, but he has maintained a public presence through his writings, meetings with important visitors and rare appearances.

Esteban Lazo, member of the political bureau of the Community Party and vice president of the Council of State, 68, was named parliament president Sunday to replace a retiring Ricardo Alarcon, who served for 20 years. (Reporting By Marc Frank; Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman)

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