Fidel Castro steps down from Cuban Presidency

BBC – The 81-year-old Cuban leader announced early this morning in a letter published on the website of the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, that he will not be accepting another term as President. Castro has been in power for 49 years, though his brother Raul has held the reigns since July 2006, when Castro underwent surgery.

Cuba’s new parliament will be meeting on Sunday to elect the next President. The US has already called for Cuba to hold free elections. President Bush said that the US was ready to help the “people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty” (the irony being that Cuba is the location of Guantanamo, the US’ most well-known centre for holding suspected terrorists with no charges against them for indefinite periods of time without access to the evidence being held against them).

The Cuban National Assembly is widely expected to elect Raul Castro, 76, who the BBC reports “has mooted major economic reforms and “structural changes””. Some analysts, however, “see a possible generation jump, with Vice President Carlos Davila, 56, a leading contender”. The BBC’s Nick Miles reports that anyone hoping that the stepping down of Castro would bring about the end of the communist regime was disappointed.

Senior US state department official John Negroponte stated that despite the upcoming transitional period, the embargo will probably not be lifted “any time soon”.

The European Union has said that it hopes to relaunch ties with Cuba that had been almost completely frozen during the reign of Castro. China spoke of Castro as an old friend. China plans to maintain cooperation with Cuba.

BBC correspondent Michael Voss, in Havana, reports that most Cubans will be saddened by Castro’s retirement, “but many hope that the political transition will bring economic improvements.” Cuban exiles in Miami joined in celebration. There have not been any protests in the streets of Havana calling for political change. Reporters say that the lack of protest is due in part to the Cuban regime not tolerating dissent. Reporters also say that another factor is that Cubans are wary of what change would probably mean: “a mass influx of exiles returning from Miami”.

During brother Raul’s interim leadership, the regime has been supported economically by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in the form of millions of barrels of cheap oil.

Castro plans to continue to be politically active

In his public announcement, Castro said that he is retiring because he cannot in good conscience accept the responsibilities that his wavering health will no longer allow him to perform. Castro, however, plans to maintain political activity by continuing to write essays entitled Reflections of Comrade Fidel.

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