HAVANA – Fidel Castro, bedridden for 19 months, yesterday gave up the almost unlimited power he has wielded in Cuba for nearly 50 years, but whether the surprise announcement represented a historic change or a symbolic political maneuver remained unclear.
It is expected that his brother Raul, 76, will be officially named president, and some experts consider him more pragmatic. Raul Castro has talked about bringing more accountability to government and of possibly working to improve relations with the United States. But since taking over temporarily in the summer of 2006, he has largely operated in his brother’s shadow, and, except for facilitating huge foreign investment by Canadian and European resort developers here, he has brought about little change.
Under Cuba’s Constitution, a newly chosen legislative body, called the National Assembly, is scheduled to select a 31-member Council of State on Sunday. In turn, the new council will pick the next president. Fidel Castro said he would not accept the position even if it were offered to him.
In a letter read over early morning radio and television programs across the country, the 81-year-old Castro – who has appeared frail in the few videos released by the Cuban government – was said to be too ill to continue as head of state and would not stand in the way of others who were ready to take over, a sentiment he first expressed last December.
Experts on Cuban politics say the decision on a successor remains in the hands of the Castro brothers and their inner circle, many of whom hold positions in the Cabinet. Still, others said that it was possible that a younger president could be brought in or that the posts of prime minister and president could be divided between Raul Castro and one of the ministers.
It was not clear what role, if any, Fidel Castro would play in a new government, or whether he would retain other powerful positions, including head of the Communist Party. But he signaled that he was not yet ready to completely exit the stage.
It is not even certain that Castro was well enough to actually write the letter of resignation. Doubts have arisen over the state of his health and whether he could have written a series of essays that have been published over the last year and a half in Granma, the Communist Party organ.
“I am not saying goodbye to you,” said Castro in the letter written under his name and addressed to the people of Cuba. “I only wish to fight as a soldier of ideas.”
The confusion of analysts in both Cuba and the United States about the extent to which Castro would withdraw from day-to-day government operations or continue to wield power from behind the scenes was reflected in the mix of opinions of people from the luxury beaches at the seaside resort of Varadero to the central park of Old Havana.
There was little evidence in the streets of the capital and in other cities to suggest that a monumental change was taking place in the Cuban hierarchy. But that could be because the accrued experience of 50 years of state security efforts made open demonstrations unlikely.
Cuba’s leading dissident tried to dampen expectations.
“This isn’t news,” said the dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, in a telephone interview, after learning from friends that Castro was ceding power. “It was expected and it does nothing to change the human rights situation, which continues to be unfavorable, or to end the one-party state. There’s no reason to celebrate.”
The pace of ordinary Cuban life continued.
In Varadero, workers collected garbage and cleaned pools as they normally would. On the highway, workers whitewashed barriers.
In the seaside city of Matanzas, Eliana Lopez, a 55-year-old transportation inspector who had heard the news on her way to work, said she expected the revolution to continue, with change coming slowly but surely. “There is no surprise,” Lopez said. She added, “This is the correct decision,” referring to Castro’s declaration.