Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Fidel Castro misses final National Assembly meeting

CONSPICUOUS ABSENTEE The ailing president's long speeches had dominated previous debates, but this year his chair sat empty, again fanning health concerns


Ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro did not attend the last session of the year of the country's National Assembly on Friday, fanning concerns about his health.

The absence of Fidel spotlighted the looming question about the future of Cuba -- the only communist-ruled country in the Americas. He has only missed the session once in 30 years.

The one-day session on Friday was headed by Fidel Castro's brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro. Fidel has not been seen in public since July 26 and he temporarily handed over power to his brother five days later after undergoing intestinal surgery.

Since its creation in December 1976, the National Assembly of People's Power (ANPP) has been Fidel's venue for laying out in detail the country's direction. His long speeches dominated debates and usually led to unanimous votes backing his views.

The leader of the assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, ended the eight-hour meeting, where Fidel's customary chair sat empty, without transmitting any message from the longtime leader.

In a closing address, Alarcon, Cuba's former representative to the UN and its top official for US affairs, denounced the "historical interest of the United States in destroying the Cuban revolution."

He proposed changing a tradition of naming each year for a major activity -- mainly Fidel's initiative since 1959 -- to assigning it the number of the anniversary it marks of the revolution.

Fidel was consulted on that proposal and was "fully in agreement," a session leader said.

Alarcon said nothing about Fidel, 80, who led Cuba from Jan. 1, 1959, until his handover to Raul.

He also had no revealing comments about the status of Raul, 75, as he presided over the assembly session.

But there was a slight allusion to Fidel when the economy minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez, declared: "Continue drawing up the new course of the fight ... We will be ready to fulfill your orders and to guarantee your work."

Rodriguez announced that Cuba's economy will have grown 12.5 percent in 2006, the fastest pace in Latin America.

The meeting on Friday was the first time the interim president's team of leaders was in full view. The six men Fidel named to aid Raul all are assembly members -- Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, vice presidents Carlos Lage and Esteban Lazo, Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer, central bank chief Francisco Soberon and Communist Party organizer Jose Machado Ventura.

Raul Castro strongly suggested during a speech late on Wednesday that the time had come for a changing of the guard.

"Whether we like it or not, we're already coming to the end of our duties," Raul said.

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