Uncertainty in Cuba as Castro Steps Down

Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader who ousted a military dictatorship to install the first communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, announced that he is stepping down as president, ending his half-century rule.
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 19 -- Fidel Castro, the Marxist revolutionary and nemesis of 10 U.S. presidents, resigned as Cuba's paramount leader Tuesday after dominating the island's politics and society for nearly five decades.

His resignation brought a measure of uncertainty to a political system that has changed little since Castro, now 81 and ailing, swept into Cuba's capital at the head of a guerrilla army. But in Havana, Cuba's seaside capital, and across the Straits of Florida in Miami, the resignation stirred only slight reaction, underscoring a sense among many Cubans and embittered exiles that the political transition was unfolding precisely as Castro planned.

Castro, who has not appeared in public for 19 months since undergoing multiple intestinal surgeries, cleared a path for his 76-year-old brother, Raúl, to be named president Sunday when Cuba's National Assembly meets. But that succession remained unclear because Castro did not mention it in his 1,076-word "Message from the Commander in Chief" -- his resignation announcement that filled the front page of Tuesday's Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.

"It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer," Castro wrote. "This I say devoid of all drama."

The resignation closes a singular chapter in modern political history, ending the formal career of a man who toppled Cuba's government with a ragtag rebel army in 1959, turned back a U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war a year later during the Cuban missile crisis.

Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidents, some of whom based their Latin American policy on ousting him, and persevered after the collapse of his government's main financial sponsor, the Soviet Union.

Along the way, the son of a wealthy sugar farmer from Cuba's windswept eastern province inspired a new generation of left-leaning Latin American leaders, backed Marxist revolutions from Central American to Africa, survived CIA-financed assassination attempts and stood defiant against a decades-long U.S. trade embargo.

"He has prepared things -- he has prepared for this. He is an intelligent man," Fidel Lao, a 38-year-old taxi driver, said Tuesday in Havana. "They wanted to knock him down, knock him down. But he left on his own."

Castro's failure to endorse a successor Tuesday was seen as a small, remote opening for someone other than his brother to lead the country of 11.4 million people. The National Assembly will gather Sunday in Havana to select the Council of State, which then names Cuba's new president. For decades, there was no suspense in the process.

In addition to Raúl Castro, possible successors include Vice President Carlos Lage, 56, and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, 42. The younger men, who came of age in the years after Castro's revolution, might also be in line to succeed Raúl, Cuba experts say.

"I think what we're going to see now is a handoff period," Philip Peters, a Cuba specialist at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, said in a telephone interview. "We're going to see the 'historicos' -- the revolution's first generation -- handing off to the second generation. There will probably be a collective quality to leadership."

President Bush, who was traveling Tuesday in Africa, said he hoped this would be "the beginning of a democratic transition for the people of Cuba."

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