Cuba's legislature opens, set to re-elect Raul Castro

Cuba's new National Assembly met Sunday for a process that is widely expected to see Raul Castro re-elected president, and included a rare public appearance of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro.

Legislators in the communist country cheered when the 86 year-old Fidel took his seat at the National Assembly chamber, state news agency Prensa Latina reported. Foreign press was barred from the opening ceremony.

Raul Castro, now 81, became interim president when Fidel took ill in 2006, then formally became president in 2008.

The National Assembly is set to appoint the 31 members of the Council of State, which in turn is expected to re-elect Raul Castro. The Council members are likely to include the next generation of Cuban leaders, as the old guard directly linked to the 1959 revolution retires or dies off.

Up and coming Cuban leaders include Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 52 year-old electrical engineer and former higher education minister; Marino Murillo, 52, an economist in charge of overseeing Castro's economic reforms; and Bruno Rodriguez, 55, who has been foreign minister since 2009.

This will be the last term for the year-old Raul Castro: he earlier limited a president's time in office to two five-year terms.

The National Assembly, whose members ran for office in October unopposed, chose Esteban Lazo, 69, as their new president.

Lazo, an economist and former Council of State vice president, follows Ricardo Alarcon, who headed the National Assembly for 20 years. Alarcon did not run for re-election to the legislature in the October vote.

Raul Castro's goal is to liberalize Cuba's economy somewhat and encourage more private entrepreneurship, but at the same time keep the Cuban state in charge through joint ventures.

During his second term in office he is expected to continue his painstakingly slow reform of Cuba's antiquated Soviet-style system.

The slow reforms come as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the cash-strapped island's main economic benefactor, is convalescing after cancer surgery.

Havana depends heavily on cheap oil and economic aid from the leftist Venezuelan regime, and it's unclear whether a Chavez successor will be as generous.

There could be a last-minute surprise: on Friday Raul Castro joked about resigning.

"I am going to resign. I am about to turn 82. I have the right to retire. Don't you believe me?" Castro said, smiling to reporters after accompanying Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the old Soviet cemetery near Havana.

When asked what he would say on Sunday, Castro only said that it would be an "interesting speech."

Cuba has endured a US-imposed trade embargo since the 1960s, and depends heavily on Venezuelan aid since it failed to discover any oil in its part of the Gulf of Mexico as earlier expected.

Raul Castro became leader of Cuba's military following the 1959 revolution and spent most of his career in that post, in the shadow of his more famous older brother.