Friday, December 22, 2006

Castro absent from Cuba assembly

BBC NEWS | Americas | Castro absent from Cuba assembly

Castro absent from Cuba assembly
Image of President Fidel Castro on Cuban TV (28 October 2006) The dictator seemed frail during his last TV appearance in October
Cuba's National Assembly has opened its end-of-year session without dictator Fidel Castro, who was taken ill some five months ago.

It is only the second time in the past 30 years that he has not attended and his usual chair was left empty.

The veteran leader handed over control to his brother Raul in July, before undergoing urgent intestinal surgery.

Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since then but photographs and TV images of him have been shown.

The Cuban dictator is not expected to make an appearance during the meeting, although a telephone call or message is possible.

The session began with lawmakers singing the national anthem behind the closed doors of the Havana convention centre.

Missed parade

A minute's silence was observed for a member of parliament who had died.

During a speech, Cuban Economics Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez addressed the absent Fidel Castro.

"Keep following the new paths of combat for the good of your people," Mr Rodriguez said.

"We will be ready to carry out your orders and guarantee your work with the faith in victory that you have always instilled in us."

It is the latest in a series of national events that Mr Castro has missed since falling ill.

Last month, he was not present at a major military parade marking the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces and the delayed celebration of his mid-August birthday.

In a speech earlier this week, Raul Castro, 75, did not mention his brother's health.

But he said Cuba's communist system would continue with or without Fidel, whom he called "irreplaceable".

State secret

Correspondents say Raul Castro's stated intention to delegate more widely and encourage more public debate may signal a shift towards more openness.

Cuban officials have repeatedly denied that Fidel Castro is suffering from cancer and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has denied that his ally's illness is terminal.

Correspondents say that an increasing number of Cubans believe that, whatever Fidel Castro's health might be, he seems unlikely to return to power.

Cubans were told that details of the ailment would be kept secret to prevent Cuba's enemies from taking advantage of them.

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