Sunday, February 24, 2008

Castro yields control of Cuba on his own terms

Castro yields control of Cuba on his own terms
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff

Taking another step in his slow, careful retreat from power, Fidel
Castro announced yesterday he is resigning as president of Cuba, after
nearly a half-century as undisputed leader of the island nation.

The announcement comes two years after Castro handed the reins of power
to his brother, Raúl, and said he was taking temporary leave because of

"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," Castro, 81, said in a letter
posted on the Web site of the state-run newspaper, Granma.

Castro, who took power in a 1959 revolution, said leaving office was a
hard step for him, given all that his "adversary" -- the United States
-- had done over the years to try to get rid of him, including
assassination plots.

The announcement ends the reign of a man who outlasted nine U.S.
presidents and the Soviet Union. And by leaving under his own terms,
Castro has done what many thought he couldn't -- maintain Cuba as a
Communist state after he steps down.

"When we looked at different scenarios, we never really considered this
scenario, some kind of slow succession," said Jose Azel, senior research
associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban
American Studies. "It was a very efficient and effective transition. It
was almost seamless."

For decades, Cuban exiles in Florida and in New Jersey dreamed of the
day they would dance in the street upon learning of Castro's death in
office, cheering as freedom made its return to the Communist island.
Federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Department of
Homeland Security, have held drills to plan for flotillas of refugees
heading to the United States -- and flotillas of Cuban exiles going in
the opposite direction.

But in Miami and Union City yesterday, there was little celebration.

"Nothing is new," said Orlando Gonzalez, 80, who left Cuba in 1965 and
was selling Cuban flags and hats yesterday on the streets of Miami.
"There have been too many years of oppression. I wish the Castros were
dead tonight -- both of them."

Life went on as usual in Cuba as well. There were no lines at gas
stations, no panic buying. Workers showed up at factories and children
went to school. State television ran programs on medieval history and
soap operas.

It was like any other day -- a triumph for a carefully managed campaign
in which the Communist state painstakingly prepared its citizens and the
world for the political departure of its "Maximum Leader."

New Jersey's two Cuban-American members of Congress said they expected
no immediate change but hoped democracy would prevail in the near-future.

Sen. Robert Menendez -- the former mayor of Union City who was born to
Cuban parents -- said Castro's resignation should not be mistaken for
regime change.

"To just embrace Raúl would be a huge mistake. This Castro is the same
as the other in terms of philosophy, having been part of a
dictatorship," said the Democrat, who is opposed to any change to the
long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba.

"In that respect, it is not a change we would love to see," he said, but
"it's an opportunity for the U.S. and the world to challenge Raúl, an
opportunity to move in a different way."

Cuban-born Rep. Albio Sires (D-13th Dist.) said he hoped the symbolism
of Castro's resignation would be meaningful. "The Cuban people will be
disappointed if change doesn't come out of this," said Sires, who also
does not support lifting the embargo now.

The events leading up to yesterday's announcement began in July 2006,
when Castro underwent emergency surgery for an intestinal problem. The
illness still has not been fully explained, and Castro has not appeared
in public since.

He released a letter at the time saying he was temporarily ceding power
to his brother, and he began appearing in a steady stream of official
photographs and videos to defuse rumors he was dead.

Authorities continued to insist Castro was on the mend, even after he
failed to appear at last year's May Day parade in Havana. Castro
released wordy essays and newspaper columns several times a week, easing
into a new role as columnist in chief.

On Revolution Day in July, it was Raúl, not Fidel, who gave the
traditional national address, challenging Cubans to complain openly when
they saw problems with the state's control of the economy and calling
for unspecified "structural changes" in the socialist system.

Fidel Castro seemed almost glum in his resignation letter, suggesting he
had wanted to step down all along but other officials would not let him.
He said he had carefully prepared people for his departure.

"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," he wrote.

His campaign worked. No one seemed fearful of sudden disruptions, much
less the collapse of the socialist system Castro championed.

"The people don't want protests and aren't going to throw themselves
into the street to beg for anything because they are satisfied with what
they have," said Rainer Aguilera, a 27-year-old engineer walking his
mother back from a doctor's appointment at one of Cuba's many free
health clinics.

President Bush and leading dissidents on the island have called upon the
Cuban to rise up against the government. Many Cubans have eagerly
awaited small economic or social reforms -- such as greater freedom to
travel at home and abroad, and greater access to consumer goods,
including cars and cell phones -- that could take hold in the elder
Castro's absence.

Aguilera said those would be a far cry from a major political overhaul.

"Change will come, but probably not the change other people of the world
are hoping for," he said.

In a recent webcast presented by University of Miami's Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, senior research associate Brian Latell
noted that two-thirds of the Communist party nominees up for election to
the national assembly are first-time candidates, many of them under 50.

"There's the possibility that some small percentage of them could begin
to coalesce as a center a small center of dissent that would be
unprecedented," Latell said. "You can't predict it; it's not something
that's likely, especially in the short term."

Star-Ledger wire services contributed to this report.

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