HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro took his seat next to an empty chair reserved for brother Fidel Castro on Friday in the first National Assembly meeting since his election in February. Castro, who has taken steps to modernize the island's socialist economy, was greeted with loud applause from the 600 assembly members in their second session of the year. Fidel Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since he provisionally ceded power to Raul Castro after intestinal surgery for an undisclosed illness in July 2006. He took power in a 1959 revolution and remains a deputy in the National Assembly, which keeps his chair open, awaiting his return.
Raul Castro, who is 77, has raised expectations for change in Cuba, where the average Cuban receives several social benefits but earns less than $20 a month. His reforms have included decentralization of agriculture to increase food production, removing salary limits so better workers can earn more, allowing Cubans to buy cell phones and computers and opening up tourist facilities previously off-limits to Cubans. Castro was scheduled to speak to the assembly later in the day about the economy and the need to increase productivity. In committee meetings leading up to Friday's session, government officials have talked about the need for belt-tightening due to rising prices for fuel and imports. They also said the government would decentralize a sagging construction sector to make it more efficient and consider raising the retirement age to help Cuba cope with an aging population. The proposal would gradually raise retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 60 for women, but is not expected to be approved until the assembly meets again in December.
(Reporting by Marc Frank and Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Jeff Franks)