(AFP) – Feb 19, 2008
HAVANA, Feb 19, 2008 (AFP) — Ailing revolutionary icon Fidel Castro permanently gave up the Cuban presidency on Tuesday, ending five decades of ironclad rule of the island marked by his brash defiance of the United States.
In a message published by the online version of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, the 81-year-old Castro said he would not seek the presidency again when it is decided later this week.
"I neither will aspire to nor will I accept -- I repeat -- I neither will aspire to nor will I accept, the position of president of the Council of State and commander-in-chief," Castro wrote, almost 19 months after undergoing intestinal surgery and handing power temporarily to his brother Raul Castro.
"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," he said.
Castro did not say who he thought should be his successor as president, though most analysts believe Raul Castro, 76, is the obvious choice.
But the elder Castro's reference to a "middle generation" suggests that younger leaders such as Vice President Carlos Lage, 56, should not be ruled out.
The Cuban Revolution "also has the middle generation that learned together with us the elements of the complex, almost unknowable art of organizing and directing a Revolution," Castro wrote, in what could be a hint at leaders to come.
US President George W. Bush said Tuesday that Fidel Castro's decision to step down should begin a "democratic transition" in Cuba, eventually culminating with free and fair elections.
"I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of democratic transition," said Bush, who signalled no change in a half-century of tough US policies towards America's one-party neighbor.
"Eventually this transition ought to lead to 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," Bush said, on the road in Rwanda.
A guerrilla revolutionary and communist idol, Castro held out against history and turned tiny Cuba into a thorn in the paw of the mighty capitalist United States.
The longest ruling leader in the Americas overthrew Fulgencio Batista to take power in 1959 and kept a tight clamp on dissent at home, imprisoning political opponents. Rights groups put the current number of political prisoners at more than 200.
Fidel Castro has said he would never retire from politics and he vowed to continue his editorial writing.
Out of public sight since his surgery, seen only in videos and photos, Castro has often published columns in the Cuban media titled "Reflections of a commander in chief."
"I am not saying farewell. 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. I will be careful," he wrote Tuesday.
Castro's message came just five days before a historic session in the National Assembly in which he was up for reelection for another five-year mandate.
Raul Castro said a month ago that the National Assembly would elect Cuba's next president on February 24, amid speculation that his brother -- for the first time in five decades -- might not be its choice.
Many speculate Raul Castro may become president permanently or that another regime official might move up the ladder.
While Castro appeared to be in better health than a year ago, many Cuba-watchers believed he would never be able to resume the full, wide-ranging powers he used to wield.
Few, however, doubt that Fidel will remain influential.
Famed for his rumpled olive fatigues, straggly beard, and the cigars he reluctantly gave up for his health, Castro dodged everything his enemies could throw at him in nearly half a century in power, including assassination plots, a US-backed invasion bid, and a US trade embargo.
In Madrid, Spain's Latin America minister Trinidad Jimenez said Castro's decision to give up Cuba's presidency will give Raul more power to carry out reforms.
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