Cubans asked to stay united following Castro ‘retirement’

HAVANA, Feb 19, 2008 (AFP) – Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon, one of Cuba’s top leaders, called on all Cubans Tuesday to “stay united” and uphold “the dignity of this homeland,” following President Fidel Castro’s announcement he is withdrawing from power. “We have to promise him (Castro) that all of us together, now and forever, will be capable of keeping up high the dignity of this homeland, to make this homeland increasingly just, free, more independent, more sovereign, more beautiful,” Alarcon, 70, told a televised meeting of sports personalities.

Castro, after close to 50 years in power, announced in an official newspaper that he would not seek to renew his hold on the country’s top post in parliamentary elections next Sunday because his weak health would impair his full dedication to office.

Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since he underwent gastrointestinal surgery in July 2006 and turned over temporarily the reins of power to his brother and defense minister Raul Castro, 76. As National Assembly president, Alarcon is among the top Cuban leaders in line, after Raul Castro, to take Cuba’s helm in case of an emergency. Others include Vice President Carlos Lage, 56.