Fidel says happy with direction of Cuba

Fidel Castro says he is happy with the direction Cuba is taking 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 and broadcast on Cuban television 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 when he became ill.

When one student began to ask about a key upcoming economic gathering that would in theory be led by Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party, the former president politely brushed the question aside, telling the students he was not meeting with them in his capacity as party chief.

By way of explanation, Castro then immediately said of his 2006 illness: "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."

Castro described himself as a "soldier of ideas" and said that he "did not hesitate for a minute to relinquish my duties," an apparent reference to his decision to step down as president.

He left unclear how much of a role he continues to play in the day-to-day running of the party. The Communist Party's official website lists Fidel as first secretary and Raul as second secretary.

Part of the meeting with the students was carried on national television Wednesday, but Castro's comments about his brother and his decision to delegate official duties were not broadcast until Thursday.

In the initial 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.

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.