After nearly 50 years in power, Fidel effectively hands the reins to his younger brother, Raúl Castro.
By Sara Miller Llana | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the February 20, 2008 edition
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Mexico City – For the first time in nearly half a century, Fidel Castro has stepped down as president of Cuba.
The announcement caps a year and a half of limbo and speculation since Mr. Castro fell ill and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother, Raúl Castro.
“I will not aspire to nor accept – I repeat, I will not aspire to nor accept – the post of President of the Council of State and Commander in Chief,” read a letter that appeared early Tuesday morning in the Community Party daily Granma.
It is a pivotal moment in the island nation’s history. Castro rose to power on New Year’s Day in 1959, and quickly became a nemesis of the United States as he turned Cuba into a communist country. Throughout the cold war – and since – US presidents have attempted to topple him with no success. Many Cubans have no memory of anyone other than Castro as the head of state. Even when he handed temporary power to his brother in July 2006, there was an expectation that he would return.
“It’s a very big moment; he has governed the country for half of its independent life,” says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
But beyond the symbolic nature of the move, the impact that his resignation will have on the country remains unclear. Many expected a resignation announcement this weekend, when the new National Assembly meets to choose the country’s new leadership. Castro won a parliamentary seat during elections in January, and will likely be elected to the 31-member Council of State.
Unclear how much will change
Still, many experts say that little will change so long as Castro is alive. “It’s not clear what his continuing hovering presence means for the country,” says Dennis Hays, former official of the Cuban-American National Foundation, an organization dedicated to replacing Castro’s regime with a market-based government. “No one wants to make a move while the ‘jefe’ [boss] is still alive…. If the Cuban government moves in any way that repudiates the ways of [Castro], it undermines the whole legitimacy of the power structure.”
The letter signed by Castro on Tuesday was ambiguous about who would succeed him. Mr. Peters says that the orthodox members of Cuba’s Communist Party could push for Raúl Castro to continue leading the country, since Raúl hails from the older generation of those who fought in the revolution. But Fidel has hinted at the capabilities of the younger generation, too. Carlos Lage, the council’s vice president, could also be a contender. In any case, Peters says that a form of collective leadership will likely emerge, no matter who carries the title.
“I think the most notable thing is that [Castro] is leaving on his own terms,” says Peters. “He is retiring. It was neither invasion, nor covert operations, nor the embargo nor the tightening of sanctions, nor President Bush’s policies that have pushed him out. It is an orderly constitutional succession.”
That, he says, will instill confidence in the populace.
Economic reforms ahead?
But Mr. Hays says the atmosphere could change. Raúl Castro has hinted at economic reforms in the past 18 months. He has said that some of the country’s prohibitions are excessive and some state enterprises dysfunctional. It is unclear at what pace, and how deep, economic reforms could take place under new leadership. “But people are expecting something to change,” says Hays. “And they want things to happen quickly. If [the new leadership] doesn’t show progress, it could be a difficult path.”
Mr. Bush spoke Tuesday about Castro’s announcement from Rwanda, during his five-country trip to Africa. “The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy,” said Bush. “Eventually, this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections – and I mean free, and I mean fair – not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as true democracy.”
But no one expects any change in terms of the political system. “They have put economic reform on the agenda,” says Peters. “The whole drama of this year is going to be whether they deliver or disappoint.”