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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 August 2007, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Cuba awaits news on Castro's return
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Cuba's electoral process formally got under way this week - at a time when Cubans are increasingly beginning to wonder how permanent Fidel Castro's absence from power will be.

Fidel Castro seen on a Cuban TV programme in June 2007
It is two months since pictures of Fidel Castro were last released

Their long-time leader handed the temporary presidency to his brother, Raul, last summer after undergoing emergency surgery.

The country's electoral process will culminate early next year in a new National Assembly, or Parliament, which in turn elects the country's president for another five-year term.

The president of Cuba's National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, is one of the few leading figures to have spoken publicly about Fidel Castro's health following his series of intestinal operations.

Until now, the official line had been that the ailing leader would eventually return to the helm and run for re-election next year.

But, in an exclusive interview with the BBC, Mr Alarcon was far more cautious in his latest assessment.

Strict regime

We met at the modest National Assembly building on 42nd Street, in the Miramar district of the capital, Havana.

I hope that he will continue recovering and I look forward to him continuing to play the leading role that he has always played in our country
Ricardo Alarcon

Mr Alarcon joined Fidel Castro's movement to overthrow the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista at the age of 18, organising its youth brigades.

He told me that Fidel Castro had had to adjust to a strict regime to help his physical recovery, while remaining active in the decision-making process.

"He's also doing something that probably he would have liked to have done more of in the past but didn't have time to do before his illness, which is reading a lot and writing a lot."

But when asked specifically if Fidel would return to front-line politics, he was more circumspect.

"I hope that he will continue recovering and I look forward to him continuing to play the leading role that he has always played in our country," he said.

Living standards

The world's last surviving Cold War leader has not been seen in public since he named his brother Raul as acting president just over a year ago.

Raul Castro (left) and Ricardo Alarcon, March 2007
Mr Alarcon (right) says Raul Castro may look to alter Cuba's approach

It is now more than two months since any pictures of him were released, though Fidel Castro continues to make his presence felt through regular newspaper editorials.

Cuba is now more than a year into the transition and outwardly, at least, very little has changed.

But acting President Raul Castro has raised expectations that efforts are being made to raise living standards.

In a keynote address to the nation in March, acting President Raul Castro spoke of the need for structural and conceptual changes.

"Raul was appealing to people to be more critical of our own problems... and looking at the possibility of doing things in a better, more rational way," Mr Alarcon explained.

Foreign policy

At a speech in Venezuela earlier this month, Mr Alarcon had said that in the 21st Century we can expect to see many different types of socialism.

So is Cuba about to embark on a Chinese or Vietnamese-style reform, with an opening-up of the economy?

"No," he told me. "What you should expect to see is a Cuban approach.

"But that doesn't mean to say that you cannot benefit from the contributions that other people's experience may bring."

On foreign policy issues, Mr Alarcon, who was Cuba's long-time ambassador to the United States through much of the Cold War period, reaffirmed Cuba's willingness to sit down at the negotiating table with the Americans, but not as long as the Bush administration was in power.

Mr Alarcon also said that an end to the US trade embargo against Cuba, which has been in force for almost half a century, was not a precondition for talks.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Interview with the president of Cuba's National Assembly





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