Fidel Castro says he is happy with the direction Cuba is moving under the leadership of his brother Raul, his most explicit remarks to date about the sweeping economic changes the country is undergoing.
"I'm content, because the country is moving forward despite all the challenges," the bearded revolutionary icon told Cuban students in comments carried by the official Communist Party-newspaper Granma on Thursday.
The elder Castro stepped down in 2006 due to a serious illness that almost killed him. He re-emerged from four years of seclusion in July, but has rarely spoken about Cuban current events, preferring to use his appearances to warn of what he fears is a looming nuclear war pitting the United States and Israel against Iran.
Castro, 84, remains head of the Communist Party, though in his remarks to the students he gave the impression he had delegated many of his official duties to others.
After telling the students he was not meeting with them in his capacity as party chief, Castro said, "I got sick and I did what I had to do: delegate my duties. I cannot do something if I am not in a condition to dedicate all my time to it."
'Soldier of ideas'
Castro described himself as a "soldier of ideas" and said he "did not hesitate for a minute to relinquish my duties," an apparent reference to his decision to step down as president.
Part of the meeting with the students was carried on national television Wednesday, but not Castro's comments about his brother or his decision to delegate official duties. In the 90-minute broadcast, Castro read word-for-word from a long speech he gave to students in 2005 that he said continued to be relevant today.
In that speech, he spoke of the need to control corruption and the black market, and warned that the revolution could fail from within if leaders did not make the correct decisions.
Since taking over — first temporarily, then permanently — in 2006, Raul Castro has warned his countrymen that the state can no longer afford to pay idle workers and must cut many subsidies Cubans have come to expect.
In September, the government announced that it was laying off 500,000 workers — or one-tenth of its labor force — while allowing many to work for themselves in an expanded private sector.
Mapping out the future
Raul Castro called a Party Congress for April in which the government is expected to map out details of Cuba's economic future.
A separate Communist Party gathering, called a Party Conference, is also to be held at some point in 2011, and there is speculation Fidel Castro might use one of the occasions to step down as head of the Communist Party.
Castro ruled Cuba for 49 years after taking power in a 1959 revolution.
He transformed the Caribbean island into a Communist state at the doorstep of the United States and became a world figure for revolutionary causes.
His departure as head of the Communist Party likely would have more symbolic power than real effect because his illness forced him to stay out of public view for four years, until he reappeared in July. He appeared to have little involvement in party matters.
But his resignation would be another signal that Cuba's aging leadership is facing transition.