Fidel Castro said Tuesday he resigned five years ago from all his official positions, including head of Cuba's Communist Party, a position he was thought to still hold.
It was the first time the 84-year-old revolutionary icon has said he no longer heads the Communist Party, which he has led since its creation in 1965. The Communist Party website still lists him as first secretary, with his brother President Raul Castro listed as second secretary.
Castro wrote in an opinion piece that when he got sick in 2006, "I resigned without hesitation from my state and political positions, including first secretary of the party ... and I never tried to exercise those roles again."
He said that even when his health began to improve, he stayed out of state and party affairs "even though everyone, affectionately, continued to refer to me by the same titles."
Castro's comments come just weeks ahead of a crucial Communist Party Congress, in which it was widely expected that a new party leader would be picked _ presumably his brother. The Congress also is tasked with endorsing a series of major economic changes Raul Castro has enacted since taking over the presidency, including opening the island up to limited private enterprise.
The elder Castro stepped down in 2006 due to a serious illness that almost killed him. In an official proclamation released on July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro provisionally delegated most of his official duties to his brother _ including the presidency and head of the party.
In February 2008 he announced he was officially stepping down as president, and Raul Castro was formally picked to succeed him by the country's parliament a few days later. But no reference was made to Fidel leaving his party post, and Cuban officials and ordinary people have referred to him as the party leader ever since.
While the government historically has focused on the day-to-day running of the country, the party is tasked with guiding the Cuban people on their path to communism. In practice, no major policy can be passed without the party first agreeing.
While nobody was expecting Fidel Castro's announcement to come the way it did _ as a fait accompli thrown into a long opinion piece that otherwise focuses on criticism of President Barack Obama _ speculation has been rampant that he would soon step down.
If the 79-year-old Raul Castro moves up to the top spot, it will give the Cuban leaders a chance to pick someone without their famous last name to hold the No. 2 position, potentially tapping a would-be successor after 52 years of uninterrupted rule.
In interviews and public appearances in recent months, Fidel Castro has intimated that he no longer has much say in party business. When he met with Cuban students in November, one asked for his thoughts on the upcoming Congress.
Castro politely brushed the question aside, telling the students he was not meeting with them in his capacity as party chief.
By way of explanation, he added: "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."