US: no plans to end embargo after Castro steps down

In the wake of Fidel Castro’s resignation as president, the US has no plans to end its embargo on Cuba “anytime soon”, according to a senior US official.


Initial reactions to Cuban President Fidel Castro’s resignation have been cautious in the United States, hopeful in the European Union and stunned in Cuba, according to reports flowing in from around the world.


The United States is unlikely to lift its economic embargo on Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro’s announcement in the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper Granma, a senior US government official has said. "I don't imagine that happening anytime soon," Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told reporters.


Earlier, US President George W. Bush, speaking in Rwanda while on a tour of Africa, said Castro's departure should mean "the beginning of a democratic transition" in Cuba.


The European Union, on the other hand, announced it was ready to seek ways to relaunch ties with Cuba that were largely frozen under Fidel Castro, after the 81-year-old revolutionary leader announced his retirement. "We reiterate our willingness to engage with Cuba in a constructive dialogue," John Clancy, a spokesman for EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel, told reporters.


But other opponents of the Cuban regime, rights defenders and Cuban dissidents abroad were skeptical that Castro's move marked a brighter future, underlining that he will maintain a strong influence.


In Moscow, the leader of Cuba's historic ally, Russia's Communist Party, hailed the move by Castro, who has been in seclusion for 19 months due to illness and has been temporarily replaced by his brother Raul. Castro is "a fantastic political leader who has hosted high the flag of freedom," said Gennady Zyuganov, quoted by Interfax news agency.


“A betrayal to my conscience”


After a half-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.

“That’s impossible”

FRANCE 24 contacted a young blogger in Havana, Yoani Sanchez, who was unaware of the declaration and gave an initial reaction of "a sense of relief". She said she believes that the Cuban system could now evolve into something similar to the Chinese regime.


On the streets of Havana, passers-by were equally stunned. "Fidel stepping down? That's impossible," 20-year-old-model Dayron Clavellon told the AFP.


"Man, we're going to miss him," said Dubael Cesar, a 27-year-old musician also walking in the street. He predicted, however, that "nothing will change" after the transfer of power to a successor.


A 61-year-old construction sector employee waiting at a bus stop, Juana Hernandez, was equally lost at the news that Cuba's revolutionary icon was on his way out. "Don't talk to me about it! I don't like it. Fidel is our historic leader. What a shame, really, about his illness," she said of the 81-year-old's convalescence after intestinal surgery. 


Others were more indifferent to news of his retirement. A disabled veteran of the Angola war, who declined to give his name to the AFP, said "It's just politics. There will be another (leader)."


"Things are bad, and we've been crying out for change -- thought-out, rapid measures without any foot-dragging," explained Aida, a 42-year-old engineer reduced to selling coffee to help support her family.


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.”


As for the question of human rights in Cuba, Reed Brody, a Brussels-based lawyer with the NGO Human Rights Watch , said: “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.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning