Saying he is no longer healthy enough to hold office, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has announced he will not seek reelection after 49 years in power and nearly 19 months sidelined by illness, marking the first official step in a long-awaited succession in the island's leadership.
îîIt would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer,'' the 81-year-old Castro wrote in a letter published in Tuesday's editions of Cuban newspapers. îîThis I say devoid of all drama.''
Castro's not-unexpected announcement came just days before the Cuban National Assembly meets Sunday to select members and president of its Council of State. The president of the council is the official ruler of Cuba and that's been Castro since the council was established in 1976.
And now he has made clear that he will not seek reelection, making way for a new leadership for his communist government.
îîFortunately, our revolution can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the process. Some were very young, almost children, when they joined the fight on the mountains and later they have given glory to the country with their heroic performance and their internationalist missions,'' he said. îîThey have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement.''
Now it remains to be seen whether his 76-year-old brother RaÑl the world's longest serving defense minister and designated successor, will be named to officially take the reins of power, although Fidel Castro is widely expected to retain a strong voice in the country's strategic decisions for the time being.
But his absence from the political scene raises many new possibilities for the revolution, particularly considering that nearly two thirds of the country's 11.2 million people were born after 1959 and have known no other leader but Fidel. Castro's successor will take office amid increasing complaints against the system's shortcomings, particularly high prices and low wages.
When Castro was struck by an intestinal illness the summer of 2006, he îîtemporarily'' turned over that title and several others to RaÑl. He has not made any public appearances since then.
The government has periodically released videos and snapshots of him, at first looking frail and gaunt and later more healthy. His signature military fatigues have been replaced by track suits in the red white and blue of the Cuban flag.
The jubilation felt on the streets of Miami that summer night Castro ceded power quickly petered when RaÑl Castro's hold on the job proved firmer than exiles in Miami expected. RaÑl's 19 months in office were marked by remarkable stability, which served to underscore the strength of Cuba's military and Communist Party.
îîIt's the same dictatorship with a different person,'' said Janisset Rivero, executive director of the Democratic Directorate, a Miami exile group that works with dissidents in Cuba. îîIt's not even a new person, but one who has been around for 49 years.''
RaÑl and Fidel swept into power in 1959 after winning a guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista. Once in office, Castro, a former lawyer, nationalized properties as the country's elite and middle class fled. He fostered strong ties to the Soviet Union, but watched his economy collapse when the Soviet bloc came apart taking its $4 to $6 billion in annual subsidies with it.
Since 1990 the island has been plagued with shortages and migration so vast it rivals the early days of the revolution.
Despite the nearly five decades in power, Castro began hinting late last year that he did not plan to hold on to his job forever. In a December column, he suggested it was time to make way for newer and younger leadership.
Some experts believe the Council of State will tap Vice President Carlos Lage, 54, to replace him. But others say it's unlikely both Castro brothers will retire at once.
îîEnough of him, enough of Raul, enough of Lage ... and the rest of this sorry lot. The Cuban people want freedom,'' said Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. îîReplacing one dictator for another doesn't amount to a hill of beans. But, then there aren't any beans in Cuba either.''
But no one is totally counting Castro out of the picture.
îîI don't believe someone as narcissistic as him will be absolutely removed from power,'' said Andy GÐmez, with the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. îîHe will continue to be consulted. What you may see now are some newer, younger faces.''
Experts say Castro's decision not to seek reelection to the presidency offers hope that it become the first step in what may be a long process toward change in Cuba.
îîIt took the Soviet Union a generation after Stalin and it was three or four years after Franco before there was change in Spain,'' said Dario Moreno, a Cuba expert at Florida International University. îîThe challenge for the Cuban community in Miami is patience. The Cuban government has had a year and a half to work on this transition. The lessons of this period we've gone through is that the Cuban revolutionary institutions are strong enough.''
One lingering question is how much power Castro will retain from his hospital bed. Experts agree that it's unlikely that anyone even RaÑl will ever command as much influence as his brother.
Castro has long been the revolution's icon. While Cubans are fed up with shortages and low salaries, many still admire and respect him as the charismatic chief who defied the United States and kept Cuba afloat despite the post-Soviet economic collapse.
Another question is whether his less charismatic brother can keep the socialist revolution going in the long-term.
RaÑl Castro is known as a man who leads by consensus. Most experts believe he will use the strength of the military, the Communist Party and National Assembly to keep a tight rein on political power while embracing economic changes to improve the daily lot of Cubans.
îîThis marks the beginning of planting seeds of democratic change,'' said Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington. îîThis is the beginning of at least the beginning of democratic change for Cuba.''
Castro disagrees, and said the revolution will continue without him.
îîThis is not my farewell to you,'' he wrote. îîMy only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to write under the heading of îîReflections by comrade Fidel.'' It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard.
îîI shall be careful.''