By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro emerged from seclusion on Tuesday to muse about death and provide encouragement to his followers, in a rare speech at the closing of a Communist Party congress in Havana.
"Soon I will be 90 years old," he said. "Soon I will be like all the rest. Everybody's turn comes," Castro, whose birthday is Aug. 13, told 1,300 party activists gathered at a Havana convention center where he delivered countless, hours-long speeches during his rule.
Cries of "Fidel, Fidel" once again rang out as the now frail former leader made his most extensive public appearance in years, speaking with a strong, if slightly hoarse, voice.
"Perhaps this will be one of the last times I speak in this room," said Castro, sporting a blue tracksuit jacket, glasses and wispy gray beard.
"The ideas of Cuban Communists will remain," he said, "as proof that on this planet, if you work hard and with dignity, you can produce the material and cultural goods human beings need."
As with other stage-managed appearances in recent years he not shown standing, even as his brother and all the delegates rose to their feet in his honor. But he looked healthier than he did for a long time after a serious illness that led him to relinquish power 10 years ago.
The eventual death of Fidel was once expected to destabilize Cuba, provoking CIA plots to kill him. The smooth transfer to his brother Raul Castro largely ended such speculation.
The congress reviewed difficulties the party faces implementing market reforms, maintaining its leadership over an increasingly diverse and informed population and dampening expectations raised by detente with the United States and President Barack Obama’s visit to the country last month.
The visit provoked Castro earlier to charge Obama was sweet-talking Cubans and had nothing to offer them, a view repeated by various delegates at the congress.
The congress proved a disappointment to many residents, especially the youth, re-electing an aging leadership and proposing little new to tackle the country’s economic problems.
Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and led the country until 2006, when he fell ill. He now lives in relative seclusion but occasionally writes opinion pieces or appears meeting with visiting dignitaries.
The iconic figure's influence waned with his retirement and the introduction of market-style reforms by his brother, but Fidel Castro still has moral authority among many residents, especially older generations.
(Editing Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)