[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 23 December 2006, 03:56 GMT
Castro absent from Cuba assembly
Image of President Fidel Castro on Cuban TV (28 October 2006)
Mr Castro seemed frail during his last TV appearance in October
Cuba's National Assembly has held its end-of-year session with no sign of ailing President Fidel Castro.

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

The meeting was instead chaired by his younger brother, acting President Raul Castro.

The veteran leader handed over control to his brother in late July, before undergoing urgent intestinal surgery. He has not been seen in public since.

Members of the Cuban national assembly are chosen in elections in which only candidates approved by the Cuban Communist Party can run.

"We are optimistic, we have to think that he will be back," the head of foreign relations for the Communist Party, Fernando Ramirez de Estenos, told the BBC.

"And in another sense, he is present: he is present with the 609 members of the National Assembly, he is present - because his ideas and his goals are here," he added.

Missed parade

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

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 Mr 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.

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 illness would be kept secret to prevent Cuba's enemies from taking advantage of them.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific