February 21, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 28
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Fidel Castro resigns as Cuba’s president

Anita Snow

HAVANA — An ailing, 81-year-old Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba’s president Tuesday after nearly a half-century in power, saying he will not accept a new term when parliament meets Sunday.

The end of Castro’s rule — the longest in the world for a head of government — frees his 76-year-old brother Raul to implement reforms he has hinted at since taking over as acting president when Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006. President Bush said he hopes the resignation signals the beginning of 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.”

In the pre-dawn hours, most Cubans were unaware of Castro’s message. Havana’s streets were quiet, and there was no movement at several party-run neighborhood watch groups in Old Havana. It wasn’t until 5 a.m., several hours after Castro’s message was posted on the Internet, that official radio began reading the missive to early risers.

Castro temporarily ceded his powers to his brother on July 31, 2006, when he announced that he had undergone 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-à-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.

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 has raised expectations among Cubans for modest economic and other reforms, stating last year that the country requires unspecified “structural changes” and acknowledging that government wages that average about $19 a month do not satisfy basic needs.

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.

Bush, traveling in Rwanda, pledged to “help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.”

“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.”

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 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)

Key dates in Cuba’s history under Fidel Castro

Jan. 1, 1959
— Dictator Fulgencio Batista flees Cuba and Fidel Castro’s rebels take power.

February 1960
— Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visits Cuba, signs sugar and oil deals, first of many pacts over next 30 years.

June 1960
— Cuba nationalizes U.S.-owned oil refineries after they refuse to process Soviet oil. Nearly all other U.S. businesses expropriated by October.

October 1960
— Washington bans exports to Cuba, other than food and medicine.

April 16, 1961
— Castro declares Cuba socialist state.

April 17, 1961
— 1,297 Cuban exiles supported by CIA invade at Bay of Pigs; attack collapses two days later.

Jan. 22, 1962
— Cuba suspended from Organization of American States; Cuba responds with call for armed revolt across Latin America.

Feb. 7, 1962
— Washington bans all Cuban imports.

October 1962
— President Kennedy orders blockade of Cuba to force removal of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles; Soviets agree within days and Kennedy agrees privately not to invade Cuba.

March 1968
— Castro’s government takes over almost all private businesses other than small farms.

July 1972
— Cuba joins Comecon, Soviet-led economic bloc.

April 1980
— Refugee crisis starts at Mariel port as Cuba says anyone can leave; some 125,000 Cubans flee by end of September.

December 1991
— Collapse of Soviet Union ends extensive aid and trade for Cuba; economic output plunges 35 percent by 1994.

August 1994
— Castro declares he will not stop Cubans trying to leave; some 40,000 take to sea heading for United States. Expanded U.S.-Cuba migration agreement signed in September.

October 1997
— Castro reaffirms younger brother, Raul Castro, as successor.

Jan. 21-25, 1998
— Pope John Paul II visits Cuba.

June 23, 2001
— Castro faints briefly giving speech in searing sun, stunning Cubans and forcing many for first time to accept his eventual mortality.

Dec. 16, 2001
— Shipments of corn and chicken arrive in Havana harbor, the first direct U.S. food sales to Cuba in nearly 40 years.

March 18, 2003
— Cuba cracks down on dissidents it alleges work with U.S.; 75 sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.

Oct. 20, 2004
— Castro trips and falls after speech, shattering left kneecap and breaking right arm, underscoring advancing age.

November 2004
— Cuba releases half-dozen political prisoners, a move widely seen as intended to court favor with European Union.

July 27, 2006
— Castro’s final personal appearance as president: A four-hour Revolution Day speech urging Cubans to have patience that electrical problems will be solved.

July 31, 2006
— Castro temporarily cedes power to brother to recover from operation for gastrointestinal bleeding.

Aug. 13, 2006
— Castro turns 80. Birthday celebrations postponed to December to give him more recovery time.

Dec. 2, 2006
— Castro fails to appear at military parade marking the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, does not attend any of his birthday celebrations.

March 28, 2007
— Castro writes the first dozens of essays called “Reflections of the Commander in Chief” that give him a voice on international affairs while he remains off the public stage.

Aug. 13, 2007
— Castro turns 81, again failing to appear in public.

Oct. 14, 2007
— Castro makes live broadcast telephone call to ally Hugo Chavez, who tells him, “You will never die.”

Dec. 18, 2007
— Castro publishes essay saying he doesn’t intend to cling to power forever, will not “obstruct the path of younger people.” Repeats the theme 10 days later in letter to parliament.

Jan. 20, 2008
— Castro re-elected to parliament, leaving open possibility could remain as president.

Feb. 19, 2008
— Castro resigns as president, apparently will remain in parliament.

(Associated Press)

Cuban President Fidel Castro addresses a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Bayamo, in the Granma Province, for the anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks in this Wednesday, July 26, 2006, file photo. Amid failing health, the 81-year-old Castro resigned his presidency Tuesday. (AP photo/Javier Galeano)

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