Opinion

Fidel Castro steps down

In the end, Fidel Castro, thorn in the side of the United States and bane of Cuban exiles for nearly 50 years, simply retired, no longer up to running one of the last remnants of Cold War commun-ism left in the world.

Those who for years have prayed for his demise or his forceful removal from office have grown old themselves. They had to concede Tuesday, when Castro officially turned his duties over to his brother Raul, that little would change as a result.

That, in fact, was evident last year, when Castro, felled by a severe stomach ailment, temporarily ceded power to his brother. Cuban-Americans in Miami's Little Havana celebrated with drums, chanting and dancing in the streets, but little changed then, either.

The Cuban press still is muzzled, and opponents of the Castro regime who are too vocal still disappear or end up in prison. While literacy rates are high and medical care is universal in Cuba, poverty and lack of food are rampant, and much of the island's infrastructure is crumbling.

And now that Cuba no longer is directly subsidized by the Soviet Union, it must find other ways -- including tourism -- to survive. That has provided an opening for the United States to exploit, but one U.S. leaders have yet to take advantage of.

Perhaps real change will come only when Fidel Castro dies. But we can hope that his retirement provides an opportunity for both Cuba and the United States to reassess their relationship in a century in which Cuba won't be dominated by the personality of its forceful leader.

Raul Castro has called for improved relations with the United States -- although that idea has been belittled by his older brother. But with Fidel out of power, perhaps some of the oppression will be lifted.

This also could be an opportunity for U.S. leaders to review the export embargo that has been the centerpiece of U.S.-Cuban relations since 1962. Open trade with Cuba would present new economic potential for Cuba and a lucrative market for U.S. agricultural products and other goods -- not to mention a new destination for American tourists.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to take away much hope from what is largely a symbolic passing of the mantle by an aged and infirm dictator. Real hope may reside in the next generation of Cuban leaders with names other than Castro.

IN SUMMARY

Little is likely to change as Castro officially retires and passes control to his younger brother.

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