Fidel Castro Resigns Cuban Presidency After Half-Century in Power

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Tue, 02/19/2008 - 11:40am.

HAVANA —  An ailing, 81-year-old Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba's president Tuesday after foiling U.S. attempts to topple him for nearly half a century — leaving on his own terms by clearing the way for his brother Raul to take power.  Fidel Castro's resignation letter.... 

The end of Castro's rule — the longest in the world for a head of government — frees 76-year-old Raul to implement reforms he has hinted at since taking over as acting president when Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006. U.S. President George W. Bush rejected any Castro in power, hoping for what he called a democratic transition.

"My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath," Castro wrote in a letter published Tuesday in the online edition of the Communist Party daily Granma. But, he wrote, "it would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer."

It wasn't until 5 a.m., several hours after Castro's message was posted on the Internet, that official radio began spreading the news across the island. Cubans seemed to go about their business as usual, having seen Castro's resignation as inevitable, but with a certain sadness.

"It is like losing a father," said Luis Conte, an elderly night watchman at a museum. Or "like a marriage — a very long one that is over."

Cuban dissidents welcomed the news as a possible first step toward possible change.

Moderate opposition leader Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a former commander who fought alongside Castro in the revolution, expressed hopes that whoever follows Fidel "will have freedom to launch economic and political changes as well."

"History will say if it is a good day depending upon what happens," added Oswaldo Paya, whose pro-democracy Varela Project sought an unsuccessful referendum on civil rights and electoral reforms.

"The change of a person does not signify the change of a system," Paya noted, but said Cubans are ready for peaceful changes. "We have always maintained hope and today we are more hopeful because the people are vibrating" with emotion, he said.

Castro temporarily ceded his powers to his brother on July 31, 2006, after undergoing intestinal surgery. Since then, the elder Castro has not been seen in public, appearing only sporadically in official photographs and videotapes and publishing dense essays about mostly international themes as his younger brother has consolidated his rule.

There had been widespread speculation about whether Castro would continue as president when the new National Assembly meets Sunday to pick the country's top leadership. Castro has been Cuba's unchallenged leader since 1959 — monarchs excepted, he was the world's longest ruling head of state.

Castro said Cuban officials had wanted him to remain in power after his surgery.

"It was an uncomfortable situation for me vis-a-vis an adversary that had done everything possible to get rid of me, and I felt reluctant to comply," he said in a reference to the United States.

Castro remains a member of parliament and is likely to be elected to the 31-member Council of State on Sunday, though he will no longer be its president. Raul Castro's wife, Vilma Espin, maintained her council seat until her death last year even though she was too sick to attend meetings for many months.

Castro also retains his powerful post as first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party. The party leadership posts generally are renewed at party congresses, the last of which was held in 1997.

"He will continue to be my commander in chief. He will continue to be my president," said Miriam, a 50-year-old boat worker waiting for a bus who like most Cubans was reluctant to give her full name to a foreign journalist. "But I'm not sad because he isn't leaving, and after 49 years he is finally resting a bit."

The resignation opens the path for Raul Castro's succession to the presidency, and the full autonomy he has lacked in leading a caretaker government. The younger Castro raised expectations of economic openings and other modest reforms by calling for unspecified "structural changes" and acknowledging that government wages averaging US$19 (euro13) a month do not satisfy basic needs.

"It's obvious to me that Raul will be elected on Sunday," said Fernando Rivero, a 50-year-old construction worker. He said Cubans have been preparing for economic adjustments since Fidel got sick, such as increased space for small private businesses "but with controls and without falling into savage methods that wouldn't be convenient for us right now."

As first vice president of Cuba's Council of State, Raul Castro was his brother's constitutionally designated successor and appears to be a shoo-in for the presidential post when the council meets Sunday. More uncertain is who will be chosen as Raul's new successor, although 56-year-old council Vice President Carlos Lage, who is Cuba's de facto prime minister, is a strong possibility.

"Raul is also old," allowed Isabel, a 61-year-old Havana street sweeper. She speculated that he could be succeeded by Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, "or another younger person with new eyes."

Bush, traveling in Rwanda, pledged to "help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty," but implied that wasn't likely under Raul Castro.

"The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy," he said. "Eventually, this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections — and I mean free, and I mean fair — not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as true democracy."

If Cuba remains much the same, Bush said, "political prisoners will rot in prison and the human condition will remain pathetic in many cases."

The United States built a detailed plan in 2005 for American assistance to ensure a democratic transition on the island of 11.2 million people after Castro's death. But Cuban officials have insisted that the island's socialist political and economic systems will outlive Castro.

"The adversary to be defeated is extremely strong," Castro wrote Tuesday. "However, we have been able to keep it at bay for half a century."

Castro rose to power on New Year's Day 1959 and reshaped Cuba into a communist state 90 miles (145 kilometers) from U.S. shores. The fiery guerrilla leader survived assassination attempts, a CIA-backed invasion and a missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Ten U.S. administrations tried to topple him, most famously in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.

His ironclad rule ensured Cuba remained communist long after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe.

Castro's supporters admired his ability to provide a high level of health care and education for citizens while remaining fully independent of the United States. His detractors called him a dictator whose totalitarian government systematically denied individual freedoms and civil liberties such as speech, movement and assembly.

The United States was the first country to recognize Castro's government, but the countries soon clashed as Castro seized American property and invited Soviet aid.

On April 16, 1961, Castro declared his revolution to be socialist. A day later, he defeated the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The United States squeezed Cuba's economy and the CIA plotted to kill Castro. Hostility reached its peak with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The collapse of the Soviet Union sent Cuba into economic crisis, but the economy recovered in the late 1990s with a tourism boom.

Associated Press - February 19, 2008 - posted at
Fidel Castro's Resignation Letter
Dear compatriots:

Last Friday, Feb. 15, I promised you that in my next reflection I would deal with an issue of interest to many compatriots. So this reflection comes in the form of a message.

The time has come to nominate and elect the State Council, its president, its vice presidents and its secretary.

For many years I occupied the honorable position of president. On Feb. 15, 1976, the Socialist Constitution was approved with the free, direct and secret vote of over 95 percent of eligible voters. The first National Assembly was established on Dec. 2 that same year, and it elected the State Council and its presidency. Before that, I had been a prime minister for almost 18 years. I always had the necessary prerogatives to carry forward the revolutionary work with the support of the overwhelming majority of the people.

There were those overseas who, aware of my critical health condition, thought that my provisional resignation, on July 31, 2006, from the position of President of the State Council, which I left to First Vice President Raul Castro Ruz, was permanent. Raul, who is also minister of the Armed Forces because of his personal merits, and the other comrades of the Party and State leadership were unwilling to consider me out of public life despite my precarious health.

It was an uncomfortable situation for me vis-a-vis an adversary which had done everything possible to get rid of me (referring to the United States), and I felt reluctant to comply.

Later, I was able to recover the full command of my mind and could do much reading and meditation, required by my retreat. I had enough physical strength to write for many hours, which I shared with rehabilitation and recovery programs. Basic common sense indicated to me that such activity was within my reach. On the other hand, when referring to my health I was extremely careful to avoid raising expectations since I felt that an adverse ending would bring traumatic news to our people in the midst of the battle. Thus, my first duty was to prepare our people both politically and psychologically for my absence after so many years of struggle. I kept saying that my recovery "was not without risks."

My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath. That's what I can offer.

To my dearest compatriots, who have recently honored me so much by electing me a member of the Parliament where so many agreements should be adopted of utmost importance to the destiny of our Revolution, I am saying that 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.

In short letters addressed to Randy Alonso, Director of the Round Table program on National Television — letters which at my request were made public — I discreetly introduced elements of this message I am writing today, when not even the addressee of such letters was aware of my intention. I trusted Randy because I knew him well from his days as a journalism student. In those days I met almost on a nearly weekly basis with the main representatives of the university students from the provinces at the library of the large house in Kohly where they lived. Today, the entire country is an immense university.

Here are selected paragraphs from the letter sent to Randy on Dec. 17, 2007:

"I strongly believe that the answers to the current problems facing Cuban society, which has on average a 12th grade education, almost 1 million university graduates, and real opportunities for its citizens to study without facing discrimination, require more variables for each concrete problem than those contained in a chess game. We cannot ignore a single detail; this is not an easy path to take, if the intelligence of a human being in a revolutionary society is to prevail over instinct.

"My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, much less to stand in the way of younger persons, but rather to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional era in which I lived.

"Like (Brazilian architect Oscar) Niemeyer (who turned 100 on Dec. 15), I believe that one has to be consistent right up to the end."

Letter from Jan. 8, 2008:

"... I am a firm supporter of a unified vote (a principle that preserves ignored merits), which allowed us to avoid the tendency to copy what came to us from countries of the former socialist bloc, including the portrait of the one candidate, as singular as his solidarity toward Cuba. I deeply respect that first attempt at building socialism, thanks to which we were able to continue along the path we had chosen."

I reiterated in that letter that "... I never forget that all the world's glory fits in a kernel of corn."

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

Fortunately, our process can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early days of the Revolution. Some were very young, almost children, when they joined the fight on the mountains and later they filled the country with glory with their heroism and their internationalist missions. They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement. There is also the intermediate generation which learned with us the basics of the complex and almost unattainable art of organizing and leading a revolution.

The path will always be difficult and require everyone's intelligent effort. I distrust the seemingly easy path of apologetics or its antithesis of self-flagellation. We should always be prepared for the worst possibilities. We cannot forget the principle of being as prudent in success as steady in adversity. The adversary to be defeated is extremely strong, but we have been able to keep it at bay for half a century.

This is not my farewell to you. My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to write under the title, "Reflections of Comrade Fidel." It will be another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I shall be careful.

Thank you.

Fidel Castro Ruz

Feb. 18, 2008

5:30 p.m.

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Tue, 02/19/2008 - 11:40am.