Havana: Cuban leader Fidel Castro has said he would give up power for good, but the island has been left in suspense over who will take the helm amid hopes his successor will break with the authoritarian past.
All eyes will turn to the national assembly on Sunday when the communist country’s legislature picks a new head of state to replace the 81-year-old Castro, who was sidelined by gastrointestinal surgery in July 2006.
His brother, Raul Castro, 76, who has served as provisional president for the last 19 months, is widely considered the likely successor.
But analysts believe that Cuba’s powerbrokers could turn to a new generation of leaders after nearly half a century of Castro rule. Vice President Carlos Lage, 56, is seen as a potential successor.
“I neither will aspire to, nor will I accept, the position of president of the Council of State and commander-in-chief,” Castro wrote in the Communist Party newspaper Granma Tuesday.
“It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total commitment that I am not in physical condition to offer,” said Castro, who has only been seen in picture and videos in frail condition since disappearing from public view in July 2006.
Whoever takes the reins will likely face international pressure to pave the way for democracy and a free market economy, and bring an end to the only one-party-rule of a country in the Americas.
The United States vowed to keep the economic and diplomatic screws on Cuba after Castro’s announcement, saying it would not be lifting its nearly 50-year-old embargo “anytime soon.”
US President George W. Bush said Castro’s resignation should begin a “democratic transition” in Cuba, starting with the release of political prisoners and culminating with free and fair elections.
“And I mean free, and I mean fair, not these kinds of staged elections that the Castro brothers tried to foist off as being true democracy,” said Bush, the 10th US president in office during Castro’s rule.
But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Castro’s ideological heir apparent, said the revolution started by his Cuban mentor was bigger than the man who led it.
“The Cuban revolution does not depend on one person, on a juncture, nor on circumstance,” he said late Tuesday as he inaugurated a hospital.
“Fidel is not giving up or abandoning anything, he is occupying the post that he has to fill in the Cuban revolution and the Latin American revolution,” he said.
“Fidel always was in the vanguard. Men like Fidel never retire,” he said.
Castro took power in 1959 after his band of bearded guerrilla fighters ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Famed for his rumpled olive fatigues, scraggly beard and the cigars he reluctantly gave up for his health, Castro dodged everything his enemies could throw at him, including assassination plots and the failed US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion bid.
During his tenure, the world came to the brink of nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union sought to position nuclear-tipped rockets on the island, just 144 kilometers (90 miles) from Florida.
Dissidents expressed a mix of hope and skepticism that his successor would take the country on the path of reform.
“It’s the definitive consolidation of Raul Castro (in power), and that brings more hope that the changes we so desire will get underway,” said Oscar Espinosa, an economist and former political prisoner released for health reasons.
But human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez called Castro’s announcement “more headline than real story” and expressed doubt he would leave the political stage.
He predicted that any reforms would merely be “changes that leave everything the same.”
In Miami, Cuba’s exile community celebrated the departure of the man they have reviled for nearly 50 years, but many shared the skepticism that anything would change.
“The people of Cuba want to go out and celebrate (the end of the Fidel Castro era), but nobody will go out on the streets, because if they do, they will be arrested,” said Ibrahim Reyes, who fled Cuba some 40 years ago.
“Nothing has changed,” he said.
Despite giving up the presidency, Castro indicated in his message that he would try to remain an influence behind the scenes by continuing to write regularly his column in the official newspapers.
“I am not saying farewell,” he wrote.
“I want only to fight as a soldier of ideas. I will continue writing under the title ‘Reflections of Comrade Fidel.´ I will be one more weapon in the arsenal that you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard.”