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Castro named assembly candidate despite illness

SANTIAGO, Cuba (Reuters) - Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro was nominated on Sunday for a seat in the National Assembly, leaving the door open for him to resume governing as he struggles to recover from a long illness.

Cuba's leader Fidel Castro speaks during an interview in Havana September 21, 2007. Castro was nominated on Sunday for a seat in the National Assembly, leaving the door open for him to resume governing as he struggles to recover from a long illness. REUTERS/AIN/Handout

Castro, 81, handed over power temporarily to his brother Raul 16 months ago after life-threatening stomach surgery and he has not been since in public since. To formally remain president he must have a seat in the rubber-stamp parliament.

To cries of “Viva Fidel!”, municipal councilors raised their hands and unanimously approved Castro’s name on a list of deputies to be put to the popular vote on Jan 20. Since 1976, Castro has represented Santiago, the cradle of his revolution.

Castro turned the island at the doorstep of the United States into a communist state after taking power in a guerrilla uprising in 1959.

His illness last year forced him to step aside for the first time since the revolution and allies say he was close to death at one point. But his condition then improved and he remains a power behind the scenes.

“During his convalescence he has continued to be actively involved in the country’s most important strategic decisions,” a biography attached to Castro’s candidacy said. Castro remains intellectually active, writing about the most pressing problems facing Cuba and the survival of the human species, it said.

In some 60 newspaper columns published this year, Castro never mentioned the country’s future with or without him.

At its first session in March, the National Assembly must ratify Cuba’s top political jobs on the 31-member executive Council of State, including the presidency, helping to settle speculation about Castro’s future.

Many Cubans expect Fidel Castro to retire to the role of elder statesman similar to that played in later life by China’s Mao Zedong. Other Cubans hope Raul Castro will be named successor so he can push through reforms to improve their standard of living.

“I would vote with both hands for him to continue as president of the Council of State,” National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon told reporters in Havana.

Castro has only appeared in official photographs and pre-taped videos, looking frail and grayer, and it is not clear whether he is strong enough to resume office. If he is too ill, the assembly could formally appoint Raul Castro as successor.

On the streets of Santiago, surrounded by the mountains where Castro launched his guerrilla war half a century ago, people appeared more interested in a baseball game against arch-rivals Industriales of Havana than the nominations.

“I don’t think we need another president. And if we need one, I want him to be just like Fidel, with the same ideas and personality,” said psychology student Cristina Perez.

Maikel, a young accountant who backs Cuba’s socialist system, said in Havana it was time for a new president.

“They’ve got to change the head of state. Fidel is too old and the Revolution will lose credibility if he returns,” he said.

Cuba’s tiny and splintered dissident groups are calling for political reforms in Cuba’s one-party state so that leaders can be chosen in direct elections.

Cuba watchers believe a stable transfer of power to Raul Castro has already taken place.

A European diplomat in Havana said Cuba will delay changes in its top political leadership as long as possible, because once Fidel Castro is no longer the figurehead, pressure for change will build. “They are playing for time,” he said.

Writing by Anthony Boadle, editing by Vicki Allen