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No Fidel Castro as Cuba assembly meets

December 23, 2006|From the Associated Press

HAVANA — Cuba's parliament convened Friday for the first time since President Fidel Castro fell ill last summer, and his chair was left empty as lawmakers approved a spending plan for 2007.

The session -- at least during the first two hours, when international journalists could attend -- reflected the businesslike style of Raul Castro, the president's brother and the acting leader.

The 75-year-old defense minister did not make any extemporaneous speeches or query ministers who presented economic reports, but listened quietly.

The meeting, at which lawmakers approved a spending plan for 2007, began on time and went into a recess exactly two hours later.

But references to the absent 80-year-old communist leader appeared throughout.

"We will be ready to carry out your orders and guarantee your work," Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Garcia said in comments addressed to the "Maximum Leader."

Dressed in his olive-green uniform, Raul Castro sat in his customary seat just to the left of his brother's chair. National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon presided over the session, as usual.

All top Cuban officials, including the Castro brothers, are members of the rubber-stamp National Assembly, whose lawmakers are elected in direct balloting every five years.

Cuban officials have insisted Fidel Castro will recover and return to public life, but many acknowledge privately that it seems increasingly unlikely he will resume his once-powerful role.

They have repeatedly denied that Castro suffers from cancer or some other terminal ailment, as U.S. intelligence officials and others have speculated.

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