Fidel Castro’s seat empty at parliament as ex-leader misses another chance to appear with Raul

By Will Weissert, AP
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fidel Castro absent as Cuban parliament opens

HAVANA — Cuba’s parliament opened one of its twice-annual sessions Sunday without its most famous member — Fidel Castro, who once again missed a chance to share the public stage with his younger brother Raul despite a string of recent appearances.

The 83-year-old Fidel has not been seen publicly with Raul, who took over Cuba’s presidency, since he stepped down first temporarily and then permanently four years ago. He also missed a July 26 celebration of Revolution Day, despite widespread anticipation that the former leader might show up.

The elder Castro remains a member of parliament, but his chair to the right of Raul was empty on Sunday. Cuban legislators convene twice a year and usually do little more than unanimously approve small reforms put forward by Cabinet ministries and resolutions criticizing the United States.

Outside Cuba, debate has intensified recently over who is guiding major government policy following the sudden media blitz by Fidel — who had almost completely disappeared from public view since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. Such questions are far less common on the island, but it is not clear whether Fidel and Raul are deliberately not appearing together in order to make a statement about who is in control.

On Friday, Fidel addressed a Communist youth meeting attended by former castaway Elian Gonzalez, who is now 16. The ex-president has also turned up everywhere from discussions with Cuba’s diplomatic corps to the dolphin show at Havana’s aquarium.

And after many months of official photographs from his convalescence that inevitably showed him wearing multicolored track suits, Fidel Castro has taken to wearing an olive-green shirt and fatigues similar to the military uniform that was his trademark during his nearly half century in power — though the latest incarnation is devoid of military rank.

Castro may have skipped the regular parliamentary meeting in favor of attending a special session in coming days — that he himself called — to discuss the threat of a nuclear war pitting the United States and Israel against Iran, further fueled by tensions between North and South Korea.

In a series of essays published by state media, Castro has been suggesting for weeks that such a conflict could spark widespread global destruction, though it’s unknown if he would personally attend or not.

Before Sunday’s parliament session began, Economy Minister Marino Murillo spoke briefly to reporters about a pilot program that has turned some state barber shops over to their employees and let them set their own prices while paying rent.

Murillo said such projects would be extended to other sectors of the economy but did not elaborate, saying only that “we are of the belief that the state has to step back on certain activities.”

“We can’t call them reforms. We are studying a modification of the Cuban economic model,” Murillo said. He added that officials are looking to “update the Cuban economic model, where the values of socialism come first and foremost, not the market. We will continue following centralized planning, but we will loosen up on a group of things.”

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