Fidel Castro today announced his resignation as the political and military leader of Cuba, 49 years after he seized power and installed a Communist regime in the Caribbean island nation.

The 81-year-old’s poor health in recent years has sparked a renewed national debate about the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans Cubans.

The country’s parliament will meet on Sunday to elect a new President. The US has called for free elections to be held.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:

“We can only hope that a new path will open up after this withdrawal and that there will be more democracy in that country.”

Sexual diversity was seen by Fidel Castro as a corrupt consequence of capitalism.

Cuban poet Jose Mario, an important artistic figure in the country, suffered in Cuban labour camps as Castro’s regime ‘re-educated’ homosexuals.

Gays were incarcerated in Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs) between 1965 and 1968.

Castro believed that hard work would rid the men of their “counter-revolutionary tendencies.”

At the entrance of the camp there was a sign which said “work shall make you men”, similar to the motto of the Nazi concentration camps, “work shall set you free.”

Homosexual sex was partially decriminalised in 1979 and an equal age of consent was introduced in 1992.

While social attitudes towards gay people are generally negative, the capital city Havana has a thriving gay scene but all gay rights organisations are banned.

The former leader’s brother Raul Castro, who is acting President, has recently invited his countrymen to speak out without fear, and among complains about taxes and restrictions on foreign travel and internet access the issue of gay rights has come to the fore.

Today Fidel Castro announced:

“I neither will aspire to nor will I accept, the position of president of the council of state and commander-in-chief. My only desire is to fight as a soldier for my ideas.”

Last month Mariela Castro, who is the daughter of acting President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel, revealed that the Cuban Communist party is considering granting legal recognition to same-sex unions, as health officials prepare to authorise sex-change operations.

The proposed change to Cuban family law would put members of same-sex unions on a par with heterosexual couples.

The principal needs of Cuban homosexuals “are related to the right to their recognition as consensual couples, as non-matrimonial couples, but that authorities recognise their property and inheritance rights in those non-legalised unions,” she said.

“That is their principal interest. They are not interested in marriage, they are not interested in adoption, because in Cuba there are hardly any children to adopt.”

She added that besides legal recognition, gays, lesbians and transsexuals in Cuba want respect.

“Let no one feel the right to humiliate them, nor harm them, nor exclude or reject them, that we strengthen within the family this ethic of accepting everyone and of not being discriminated against for sexual orientation.”

The Public Health Ministry in Cuba is currently in the process of approving regulations that would allow gender reassignment operations.

Mariela Castro said that a team of Cuban physicians is already in training to perform such procedures.

In an interview with EFE last August, the 45-year-old psychologist said her struggle for the equality of the sexes and gay rights would “enrich the Cuban Revolution.”

Last week the Cuban culture minister Abel Preito gave public support to gay marriage.

“I think that marriage between lesbians, between homosexuals can be perfectly approved and that in Cuba that wouldn’t cause an earthquake or anything like that,” said Mr Prieto, who is also a member of the powerful Politburo of the Communist party and the Council of State, the nation’s supreme governing body.