Fidel Castro Resigns Cuban Presidency
Tuesday February 19, 2008
Anita Snow, The Associated Press
An ailing Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba's president Tuesday after nearly a half-century in power, saying he was retiring and will not accept a new term when the new parliament meets Sunday.
"I will not aspire to nor accept - I repeat, I will not aspire to nor accept - the post of President of the Council of State and Commander in Chief," read a letter signed by Castro published early Tuesday in the online edition of the Communist Party daily Granma.
The announcement effectively ends the rule of the 81-year-old Castro after almost 50 years, positioning his 76-year-old brother Raul for permanent succession to the presidency. Fidel 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.
A new National Assembly was elected in January, and will meet for the first time Sunday to pick the governing Council of State, including the presidency that Fidel Castro has held since the assembly's 1976 creation. Before 1976, Castro was president under a different government structure, and previously served as prime minister.
There had been wide speculation about whether Castro, Cuba's unchallenged leader since 1959, would continue as president.
"My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath. That's what I can offer," Castro wrote. But, he continued, "it would be a betrayal to 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."
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.
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.
In the pre-dawn hours, most Cubans were unaware of Castro's message. Havana's streets were quiet, and there was not even any movement at several party-run neighborhood watch groups known as Revolutionary Defense Committees 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 across the island.
President Bush was notified of Castro's resignation by his national security adviser while traveling in Africa, Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
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.
Monarchs excepted, Castro was the world's longest ruling head of state.
"The adversary to be defeated is extremely strong," Castro wrote Tuesday, referring to the United States. "However, we have been able to keep it at bay for half a century."
Raul Castro had long been his brother's designated successor. The longtime defense minister had been in his brother's rebel movements since 1953 and spent decades as No. 2 in Cuba's power structure.
The United States, bent on ensuring neither brother is in power, built a detailed plan in 2005 for American assistance to ensure a democratic transition on the island of 11.2 million people after Fidel Castro's death. But Cuban officials insisted there would be no transition, saying the island's socialist political and economic systems would outlive Castro.
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 after his guerrilla movement drove out then-President Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But the two countries soon clashed over Castro's increasingly radical path. Castro seized American property and businesses 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. Undaunted, the Cuban president supplied troops and support to revolutionaries in Africa and Latin America.
Hostility over Cuba reached its peak on Oct. 22, 1962, when President Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. After a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Krushchev pulled out the weapons.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Castro eventually made peace with many governments that once shunned him. Pope John Paul II visited the island in January 1998.
The loss of Soviet aid plunged Cuba into financial crisis, but the economy slowly recovered in the late 1990s with a tourism boom.
Castro later reasserted control over the economy, stifling the limited free enterprise tolerated during more difficult times.
Fidel Castro Ruz was born in eastern Cuba, where his Spanish immigrant father ran a prosperous plantation. His official birthday is Aug. 13, 1926, although some say he was born a year later.
He attended Roman Catholic schools and the University of Havana, where he received law and social science degrees.
Castro launched his revolutionary battle as a young man, organizing an unsuccessful July 26, 1953 attack on a military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.
Later freed under a pardon, Castro went to Mexico and organized a rebel army that returned to Cuba and rallied support in the Sierra Maestra mountains. His rebels took power when Batista was forced to flee.
Entering Havana triumphantly, Castro declared: "Power does not interest me, and I will not take it."
Photo credit: Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images
Full text of Fidel Castro's letter, published in the Communist Party newpaper Granma:
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.
Fidel Castro Ruz
Feb. 18, 2008
NAME: Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz.
TITLES: President of Council of State and Council of Ministers, first secretary of Communist Party of Cuba, commander in chief of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. Before announcing he was ill and ceding power to his brother Raul on July 31, 2006, was world's longest-ruling head of government, and leader of one of world's last few communist states. He officially resigned as president on Feb. 19, 2008.
BIRTHDATE: Officially listed as Aug. 13, 1926, in Cuba's Oriente province, although some say he was born year later.
EDUCATION: Attended Roman Catholic schools and University of Havana, where he earned law and social science degrees.
BEFORE THE REVOLUTION: Launched his revolutionary fight with July 26, 1953, attack on military barracks in eastern city of Santiago. He was arrested, then freed under amnesty. Traveled to Mexico to form rebel army, and returned to Cuba with followers aboard small yacht. Most were killed or captured, but Castro and small group escaped into eastern mountains to establish stronghold and seized power when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled New Year's Day 1959.
AFTER THE REVOLUTION: Emerged as head of new government and quickly gained nearly absolute power. All American businesses eventually expropriated and Cuba was declared socialist state in April 1961, on eve of disastrous U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles. United States cut all trade with Cuba as island allied with Soviet Union, leading to October 1962 missile crisis that brought world to brink of nuclear war. For three decades, Cuba was Soviet ally and remained alienated from United States after communism collapsed in eastern Europe.
FAMILY: Married Mirta Diaz-Balart in 1948; son, Fidel Felix Castro Diaz-Balart, born in 1949; divorced in 1955. Although Castro never confirmed remarrying, reportedly wed former schoolteacher Dalia Soto del Valle and had five sons. Also reportedly had several other children out of wedlock.
QUOTE - "Homeland or death! Socialism or death! We shall overcome!"
Bio Source: The Associated Press