SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (AFP) — Fidel Castro was nominated Sunday as a National Assembly candidate, signaling that the ailing Cuban leader was not yet ready to give up politics and could even return to the presidency.
The 81-year-old communist leader, not been seen in public since he temporarily stepped down in July 2006 following surgery, was included on a list of candidates for national elections on January 20 in Santiago de Cuba, where he has traditionally been nominated for office.
To applause and cheers of "Viva Fidel, viva the commander in chief!", municipal officials in Santiago de Cuba unanimously approved Castro's nomination on a list of 25 candidates for the National Assembly.
Castro must hold a seat in the National Assembly to officially resume the presidency.
The nomination was a response to the "immense affection, respect, consideration and recognition that our people have (for him)," said Vice President Carlos Lage.
Castro has led Cuba for almost five decades but "provisionally" handed over power to his younger brother and longtime number two Raul, 76, after undergoing intestinal surgery 16 months ago.
Since then Cuban officials have said he keeps up with official business, and he has been writing opinion pieces on national and global affairs in the local media.
But there had been until now no official indication of whether or when he would resume the presidency.
Opposition figures expressed frustration at the nomination, saying that if he were reelected president, Cuba would not progress.
"It will keep the country ... in stagnation," said dissident leader Marta Beatriz Roque.
"Castro is a brake" on reforms, added opposition economist Oscar Espinosa.
"This is going to make many things worse," he said.
From the ranks of the nominees for the national and provincial assemblies, 614 lawmakers will be elected in January and they will choose the Council of State. The council's president serves as head of Cuba's one-party government.
If Fidel had not been nominated Sunday, that could have opened the way for Raul Castro -- also re-nominated Sunday in Santiago de Cuba -- to formally take over Cuba's presidency next year.
Lage said Castro was needed as head of state "because there is no job more important in the world," a job that requires an awareness of the dangers facing the planet and "the needs of responsible citizens."
Since Castro handed power over to his brother, speculation has been rife as to whether the he would formally return to power or even remain politically active.
Cuba-watchers say it is possible he might be elected an assembly deputy, but then choose not to run for re-election to the Council of State.
Voting for the presidency is set to be held no later than March 5, 2008.
Fidel, who rose to power in Cuba leading the 1959 revolution, continues to convalesce at an undisclosed location.
He has been prolific in writing often rambling opinion pieces published by state-run media, which officials hail as proof the veteran revolutionary is keeping up with local and world events.
But he has made no public appearance, other than on television, since his surgery in July 2006, and authorities have released only scant details of his medical condition.
The United States has made repeated calls for Cuba to hold free elections to launch a transition away from Castro's rule.
But Cuba maintains its electoral process, run without any campaigning, is "the most democratic in the world."
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