Castro's influence intact despite empty assembly seat

Convalescing Fidel Castro's seat in the Cuban National Assembly stood empty next to his brother on Friday as Communist party delegates convened to discuss policy, but his influence was never in question.

Castro has only appeared in official photographs and pre-taped videos since he handed power temporarily to his brother Raul after emergency surgery nearly 17 months ago and it is still unclear whether he will resume office.

He hinted last week he will not cling to his formal posts in a letter saying his duty was not to "obstruct the path of younger people", but suggested he may "contribute ideas" from experience. On Friday he appeared to reiterate that position.

"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," Castro said in a statement read in the assembly.

"What changed me, life itself, through deepening of the thoughts of (Cuban hero Jose) Marti and the classics of socialism," he said on the final day of the second assembly meeting this year.

Still, his brother says Castro is lucid, recovering and consulted on major policy decisions. He is strong enough, Raul says, that party delegates backed his nomination to run again for an assembly seat, a requirement for the presidency.

The assembly may decide on Castro's post as head of state when it approves members of the executive Council of State in March and his brother's call for more debate over problems has fueled speculation in and outside Cuba about the island's political and economic future.

Castro has been nominated for the assembly, but delegates may formally appoint a successor. Fidel Castro holds posts of president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

"Fidel's power and influence never came from the official positions he held," said Frank Mora, professor at the National War College in Washington. "Just because he does not hold the presidency does not mean he will be less influential."

Cuba watchers say there has already been a smooth transition of power under Raul Castro, who some analysts say is a more practical manager who has begun talking about a more open approach to handling the island's economic problems.

In a speech in July, Raul encouraged more debate on the country's main struggles and promised "structural changes" in agriculture to ensure Cubans have more food as import costs rise.

Cuba blames the U.S. embargo and sanctions for hamstringing its economy.

During Communist Party-organized discussions in September and October, Cubans criticized shortcomings of the socialist system established since Castro's 1959 revolution in a rare forum for public complaints.

Targets for their comments included food prices, travel restrictions, transport problems and the two-tier money system split between local pesos and hard currency.

In his assembly address on Friday, Raul Castro acknowledged the need to study many of those issues, including farming, the dual currency system and food costs, but the acting president announced no immediate proposals to delegates.

"We all would prefer to march faster, but it is not always possible," he told the assembly. "We agree with those who warn about the excess of prohibitions and legal measures, which do more harm than good." ( Reuters )

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