After half a-century as Cuba’s head of state, Fidel Castro has announced that he will not return to the presidency of the country.
“I will neither aspire to, nor accept - I repeat - I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief,” he wrote in a letter published on the website of the Communist Party newspaper Granma. “It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer,” he added, putting an end to the transition period that began July 31, 2006, when the ailing Cuban leader temporarily transferred powers to his brother Raul.
This statement comes as the name of his successor is expected to be announced on Sunday, during a session of the National Assembly. Several names are being circulated, beginning with Raul Castro. Another name being mooted is Prime Minister Carlos Lage. “If Lage were to become the next president it would suggest Cuba could enter a period of reform,” says FRANCE 24 international editor Robert Parsons, noting that in the 1990s Lage was associated with economic liberalization reforms. As for Raul Castro, Parsons says that “there have been rumours that [he] is not particularly keen to take up the reins of power.”
FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Cuba, José Goita, emphasises that Fidel Castro did not, in his message, specifically designate his brother for the position. Indeed, he evoked “cadres from the old guard” who “have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement,” without naming any person in particular.
US President George Bush, speaking in Rwanda while on a tour of Africa, said Castro's departure should mean "the beginning of a democratic transition" in Cuba, Reuters reported. The United States has imposed an economic embargo on Cuba since the early days of Castro’s reign.
“Soldier of ideas”
The news of Castro’s retirement from politics broke in the middle of the night in Cuba, via the Granma website. “A lot of Cubans don’t have Internet access and will learn of it when they read the newspaper,” says Goita.
FRANCE 24 contacted a young blogger in Havana, Yoani Sanchez, who hadn’t yet heard the news. “I’m listening to the radio right now,” she said at 3am local time. “All they’re talking about is the visit of the Ghanaian president; not Castro.” (Read Sanchez's full comments on The Observers).
In his message on the website, Castro wrote: “My first duty was to prepare our people both politically and psychologically for my absence after so many years of struggle,” Castro wrote. “My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath. That’s all I can offer.”
FRANCE 24’s international politics specialist Jean-Bernard Cadier says that this “quiet departure will no doubt ensure Castro’s legend.” In contrast to a Franco in Spain, Castro “isn’t staying beyond what is reasonable. He decided his own moment and has made a relatively successful exit,” Cadier added.
“It will be a genuinely sad moment for many Cubans,” says Parsons. “In Cuba itself, Castro is regarded with a lot of affection by many Cubans. Anti-Castro Cubans will be dancing in the streets with joy.”
“It is obviously a good thing,” adds Reed Brody, a Brussels-based Human Rights Watch lawyer. “49 years is quite long enough for any one person to remain in power. It is time for a change.”
As for the question of human rights in Cuba, Brody says that, “we’ll probably see some gradual opening up; since Fidel has taken a back seat and formally handed over power to Raul Castro in the last year and a half there has been a smooth handover. We’ve seen a slight loosening, and a number of dissidents released. I think we’ll see that kind of trend continue - gradual and nothing dramatic.”
Castro wrote that he intends to "fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas,” adding: “I shall continue to write under the heading ‘Reflections by comrade Fidel.’ It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I shall be careful.” The Lider Máximo thus becomes again a “simple” comrade.