Castro again hints at retirement

Cuba's ailing President, Fidel Castro, has for the second time this month alluded publicly to the possibility of retiring from office.

In a letter read out to Cuba's National Assembly, he said in the past he had been a person who "clung" to power, but that life had changed his perspective.

Mr Castro also urged people to support his brother, acting leader Raul Castro.

Last week, the 81-year-old communist leader wrote that he had a duty not to obstruct the rise of younger people.

"My basic duty is not to cling to office, and even less to obstruct the path of younger people, but to pass on the experiences and ideas whose modest worth stems from the exceptional era in which I have lived," last Tuesday's message said.

Mr Castro has ruled Cuba since leading a communist revolution in 1959.

He handed temporary power to his 76-year-old brother in July 2006 after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery, and has not been seen in public since.

Cuba's acting leader, Raul Castro, sat next to the empty chair of his ailing brother at the final session of the National Assembly before next year's parliamentary election.

In a letter read out before the day's business got underway, Fidel Castro said that in the past he had been a "utopian socialist".

It was a phase, he said, when he believed he knew what we had to do and wanted the power to do it.

"What the foreign press in Cuba have most reported in recent days has been the phrase where I expressed... that I am not a person who clings to power. I could add that I was once, for the excesses of youth and lack of conscience," he said.

"What changed me? Life itself, through the deepening of the thoughts of [Cuban independence hero Jose] Marti and the classics of Socialism," he said.

Mr Castro also urged people to support his brother, saying he had read in advance a speech Raul made earlier this week in which he said Cuba needed to become more democratic, at least by allowing more open debate about economic and social issues.

"It is necessary to continue marching without stopping for even a minute. I will raise my hand next to yours to support him," he added in the letter dated 27 December.

The BBC 's Michael Voss in Havana says that although the remarks were the first time that Mr Castro has publicly backed his brother's attempts at reforms, there is no talk of any political changes in the one-party state.

Mr Castro's two messages come before elections on 20 January to elect the National Assembly, which then selects the Council of State, which he has headed since 1976.

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