Castro rejects idea of political change

( AP ) - Fidel Castro rejected the idea of major political change after Cuba's parliament chooses a new president - his final published comments as the nation's longtime leader.

The article on the front page of the Communist Party newspaper Granma was one of a flurry of recent columns and announcements from Castro, who is retiring after 49 years as head of Cuba.

Writing under his new title, "Comrade Fidel," the 81-year-old Castro scoffed at suggestions in news reports that his retirement, announced Tuesday, would lead to political changes aided by Cuban exiles in the United States.

"The reality is otherwise," Castro wrote. He quoted approvingly from other articles that said his retirement showed the failure of U.S. officials to affect Cuba's political transition.

Castro said he would now lay his pen aside until lawmakers decide Sunday on his replacement as president of the island's supreme governing authority, the Council of State. Castro's 76-year-old brother Raul, the defense minister, is his constitutionally designated successor as first vice president, and is widely expected to be named president.

The younger Castro has headed Cuba's caretaker government for 19 months, since Fidel announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was provisionally ceding his powers.

In a separate report, Granma said "all the conditions have been created" for Sunday's meeting of the 614-member parliament, whose members were elected on Jan. 20. Renewed every five years, the parliament known as the National Assembly is charged at its first gathering with selecting a new 31-member Council of State headed by the president.

Fidel Castro has held the position of president since the current government structure was created in 1976. For 18 years before that, he was prime minister - a post that no longer exists.

He will remain the head of the Communist Party and a member of the National Assembly, to which he was re-elected to last month.

In a similar column on Friday, Castro wrote that preparations for the parliament meeting "left me exhausted," and that he did not regret the decision to resign.

"I slept better than ever," he wrote. "My conscience was clear and I promised myself a vacation."

In the eastern Cuba district that Fidel Castro represents as a lawmaker, residents on Saturday debated who should replace him.

"Fidel is the greatest for us, but the most important thing now is that he rests and takes good care of himself," said 72-year-old retiree Juan Alvarez. "I think that he made an intelligent decision - like all the decisions he made" since launching Cuba's revolution in the mid-1950s.

Alvarez said he was willing to accept whoever is chosen by the National Assembly, "and if it is Raul, well, that would be correct."

Sitting with him in a park in the town of El Cobre, on the outskirts of Santiago, was 70-year-old Javier Solano, who noted that Raul Castro was no longer young, either.

"It would be good to look for a young replacement, like Fidel himself said in one of his writings, so that Cuba can show the world it is not like they say, that here there is only Fidel and Raul," said Solano. "There is a whole nation as well behind them."

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