Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public for 16 months, suggested on Monday he might give up his formal leadership posts -- the first time he has spoken of his possible retirement since he fell ill.
"My elemental duty is not to hold on to positions and less to obstruct the path of younger people," the 81-year-old Castro said in a letter read on Cuban state television.
Castro, who took power in a 1959 revolution, handed over temporarily to his brother Raul Castro in July 2006 after undergoing stomach surgery for an undisclosed illness.
Cuba's National Assembly could formalize Castro's retirement as head of state when it approves the members of the executive Council of State at its new session in March.
Castro, the last of the major players of the Cold War still alive, said his duty is "to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional times that I have lived through."
His comments at the end of the letter read out on a daily current affairs programme on television suggested Castro would not resume office but instead continue in the role of elder statesman advising the government on key issues.
Castro holds the posts of president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.
Since March this year, Castro has remained present in Cuban political life by writing dozens of newspaper columns denouncing his ideological nemesis, the U.S. government, for the war in Iraq and its policies on climate change and the use of food crops as biofuels.
But he had not mentioned his future role until Monday.
Senior government officials, who no longer say that Castro is recovering and will return to office, insist that he is consulted on major policy decisions.
His illness last year sparked speculation about the end of one-party Communist rule in Cuba. But most observers agree that a stable transfer of power has occurred to Defense Minister Raul Castro as acting president.
The younger Castro, 76, who is considered to be a more practical administrator, has encouraged debate on the country's main economic problems and promised "structural changes" in agriculture to ensure Cubans have enough food.
Seven out of 10 Cubans were born after Castro's revolution and have known no other leader. Many are unsure what the future holds in store after Castro.
"We are ready, but we don't know what will come. We expect good things, nothing bad we hope," said Ana Rosa Hernandez, an usher at Havana's Yara cinema.
Outside, Gilberto Calderon, son of a peasant who joined Castro's guerrilla uprising in the Sierra Maestra hills 50 years ago, said his revolutionary legacy will survive.
"He has left a solid foundation for us to continue," Calderon said. "Even if someone else takes the seat of power, nothing will change." (Reuters)