Havana: Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public for 16 months now, suggested on Monday he might give up his formal leadership posts—the first time he has spoken of his possible retirement since he fell ill.

“My elemental duty is not to hold on to positions and less to obstruct the path of younger people," the 81-year-old Castro said in a letter read on Cuban state television.

Castro, who came to power in a 1959 revolution, handed over the reins temporarily to his brother Raul Castro in July 2006 after undergoing stomach surgery for an undisclosed illness.

Advisory capacity: Castro may take on the role of elder statesman.

Cuba’s National Assembly could formalize Castro’s retirement as head of state when it approves the members of the executive Council of State at its new session in March. Castro, the last of the surviving Cold War icons, said his duty is “to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional times that I have lived through."

His comments at the end of the letter read out on a daily current affairs programme suggested Castro would not resume office but continue in the role of elder statesman advising the government on key issues.

Castro holds the posts of president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

Since March this year, he has made his presence felt in Cuban political life by writing dozens of newspaper columns denouncing his ideological nemesis, the US government, for the war in Iraq and its policies on climate change and the use of food crops as biofuels.

But he had not mentioned his future role until Monday.

Senior government officials, who no longer say Castro is recovering and will return to office, insist that he is consulted on major policy decisions.

His illness last year sparked speculation about the end of one-party Communist rule in Cuba. But most observers agree that there has been a stable transfer of power to defence minister Raul Castro, who is acting president.

The younger Castro, 76, who is considered to be a more practical administrator, has encouraged debate on the nation’s economic problems and promised “structural changes" in agriculture to ensure Cubans have enough food.

Seven out of 10 Cubans were born after Castro’s revolution and have known no other leader. Many are unsure what the future holds in store after Castro. “We are ready, but we don’t know what will come. We expect good things, nothing bad we hope," said Ana Rosa Hernandez, an usher at Havana’s Yara cinema.

Gilberto Calderon, son of a peasant who joined Castro’s guerrilla uprising in the Sierra Maestra hills 50 years ago, said his revolutionary legacy will survive.