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CUBA: Fidel Castro Officially Steps Down

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 19 2008 (IPS) - In a decision that could be described as unexpected from someone who has spent nearly 50 years in power, Fidel Castro announced Tuesday that he was resigning the presidency of Cuba and officially handing over power to his brother Raúl, the candidate who took the most votes in the Jan. 20 elections.

 Credit: Juventud Rebelde

Credit: Juventud Rebelde

"I will not aspire to or accept – I repeat not aspire to or accept – the positions of president of Council of State and commander in chief," Castro said in a message dated Feb. 18 and posted early Tuesday on the web site of Granma, the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper.

"I would betray my conscience if I were to accept a responsibility that requires mobility and total dedication, which I am not in a physical condition to offer," said Castro, who temporarily handed over the reins to Raúl in July 2006 when he underwent the first of a series of intestinal surgeries.

Since then, he said, preparing Cubans "for my absence, psychologically and politically, has been my main obligation, after so many years of struggle. I always pointed out that my recovery was ‘not free of risks’. My desire has always been to fulfil my duty until my last breath. That is what I can offer."

"I am not saying farewell. My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battlefield of ideas. I will continue writing under the heading ‘Reflections from Compañero Fidel’. It will be just another weapon in the arsenal that you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I will be careful," he added.

While he yielded his post as head of government and the army and changed the heading of his current column from "Reflections from the Commander-in-Chief", he did not mention his position as first secretary of the Communist Party, a position he has held since 1965, which he may also give up at the next party congress.

The flurry of reactions was immediate. Castro’s resignation "ought to be a period of democratic transition" for Cuba, said U.S. President George W. Bush at a press conference in Rwanda, where he is on a tour of five African nations.

A European Union spokesman, Aid Commissioner Louis Michel, said in Brussels that "We reiterate our willingness to engage with Cuba in a constructive dialogue." Meanwhile, the broadest possible range of views were expressed over the Internet.

But in Cuba, tranquillity reigned, and Tuesday began just like any other weekday. The few people who had heard the news early in the morning took it as part of a natural process for which they have been preparing for months.

"If we have understood anything in these last few months, it is that he cannot continue in his post. This is a wise, dignified decision," a 52-year-old active member of the Communist Party told IPS.

A government official who preferred not to be named admitted that the news took him by surprise, "but not that much."

"This is best for the country. With this decision, Fidel has demonstrated great mental clarity," he added, expressing his confidence in the younger generations.

"The so-called historical generation will engage those who were born during the economic crisis (of the 1990s), whose political commitment to socialism appears to be weaker," he said.

Castro’s announcement cleared up the uncertainty surrounding next Sunday’s inauguration of the National Assembly (single-chamber parliament) and the election, by the members of parliament, of the Council of State, the highest-level government body, and its president, vice presidents and secretary.

Local observers say that parliament will face the responsibility of adopting a series of changes that Cubans have been calling for over the last few months in open public debates.

The debates in workplaces and community assemblies that took place after Raúl Castro, as acting president, called on Jul. 26 for open meetings to discuss current conditions in Cuba gave rise to 1.3 million specific proposals that are currently being studied, according to government sources.

There have been unofficial reports that Cubans can expect significant measures on the economic front, as well as responses to long-time demands like more flexible mechanisms for travelling abroad and the lifting of a number of prohibitions.

Castro’s resignation "broadens the possibilities that Raúl Castro can live up to what he promised in his Jul. 26 speech and what he has said since then about the need to eliminate harmful prohibitions," economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, one of the 75 dissidents imprisoned in 2003, who has since been released on parole, told IPS.

Espinosa Chepe said this signifies the "consolidation" of Raúl Castro as Cuba’s leader, "gives rise to hopes for changes favourable to the Cuban people," and "raises expectations."

The country’s dissidents "are hoping, above all, for the release of the political prisoners," he said. "We have sounded the alert on the problems facing Cuban society. It was the opposition who first called attention to many of the things that today are being said about wages, agriculture, the economy in general."

"We are not calling for confrontations, but for respect and reconciliation," he added.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos had already reported that the Cuban government would release seven dissidents, of the original group of 75 sentenced in 2003, for health reasons.

Four of the seven – Alejandro González, Omar Pernet, José Gabriel Ramón Castillo and Pedro Pablo Álvarez – have been released and flew immediately to Spain on Sunday:

In the last few months, Cuba also announced its decision to sign two United Nations conventions on human rights, opened its doors to periodic reviews by U.N. human rights observers, and created a mechanism for dialogue on human rights with Spain.

These decisions were explained last week by Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque as an indication of what the government is willing to do when it is not subject to pressure or manipulation, such as the kind exercised by the now-defunct U.N. Human Rights Commission, which was replaced by the Human Rights Council.

With respect to Fidel’s participation in important decisions taken in Cuba over the past few months, Raúl Castro said in December that his brother was not being overwhelmed "with every little detail, but we consult him on all of the main questions."

In the message in which he announced that he was retiring, Castro said he was confident that the revolutionary process would continue.

Cuba "can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the revolution" who "learned along with us the elements of the complex and nearly impossible art of organising and leading a revolution," he said.

"The road will always be difficult and will require intelligent efforts by everyone," he added.

"Being as prudent in success as steadfast in adversity is a principle that cannot be forgotten. The adversary to be defeated is extremely strong, but we have kept them at bay for half a century," said Castro, in a clear reference to his long-time foe, the U.S. government.

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