Cuban lawmakers meet first session since Castro ill
HAVANA – Parliament opened Friday with Fidel Castro’s chair empty, in the first meeting of the Communist nation’s legislature since Cuba’s 80-year-old leader fell ill.National Assembly of Popular Power sessions traditionally features dry speeches crammed with economic figures, but Cubans and foreign analysts watched Friday’s meeting closely for clues about Castro’s health after his July 31 intestinal surgery.As the session began, lawmakers sang the national anthem and observed a minute of silence for a deceased colleague.Raul Castro, who temporarily assumed power after his brother’s surgery, sat in his customary seat just to the left of the one normally used by Fidel. National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, as usual, presided.Fidel Castro typically attends the meetings, where he questions speakers giving their annual economic reports and sometimes delivers speeches of his own.Castro loyalists were disappointed early this month when he failed to show up for a major military parade marking the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces – which doubled as a belated celebration of his Aug. 13 birthday.Castro has not been seen in public since July 26 – five days before he stepped aside – and his current medical condition is a state secret. He has appeared thin and pale in photographs and videos released by the government in recent months.U.S. intelligence officials have speculated that Castro suffers from cancer or some other terminal ailment. Cuban officials deny this, and insist that Castro will recover and return to public life.But many acknowledge privately that it seems increasingly unlikely he will resume his role as Cuba’s supreme leader.Some U.S. doctors have said that Castro might have diverticular disease, which can cause bleeding in the lower intestine, especially in people over 60. In severe cases, emergency surgery may be required.Raul Castro, the 75-year-old defense minister, has adopted a more collaborative leadership style since assuming provisional power, delegating more responsibilities and calling for more public debate than his brother.In Friday’s session, Raul Castro was surrounded by other members of the leadership, including vice presidents Carlos Lage and Esteban Lazo and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.The nearly 500 members of Cuba’s National Assembly are directly elected every five years in district balloting across the island. Although Communist Party membership is not required to run, no other political parties are recognized in Cuba and deputies often run unopposed.The National Assembly elects Cuba’s governing body, the Council of State, including its president.Castro was elected by National Assembly deputies to his sixth presidential term in March 2003. At the same time, the deputies re-elected Raul Castro as the council’s first vice president, ratifying his role as his brother’s constitutionally designated successor.Following that vote, the elder Castro made what was then a rare reference to his mortality.”I promise that I will be with you, if you so wish, for as long as I feel that I can be useful – and if it is not decided by nature before,” he said. “Not a minute less and not a second more.”
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