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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Goodbye Comrade Fidel

Fidel Castro leaves Cuba stage to brother Raul

HAVANA - RETIRED Cuban leader Fidel Castro will play the role of elder statesman after nearly 50 years of absolute rule of Cuba, leaving the stage clear for his brother Raul Castro to assert himself.
Fidel Castro, who stepped down on Tuesday as president and commander-in-chief of Cuba's armed forces, stays on as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party and will continue to hold forth on domestic and world affairs in articles.

'We will continue waiting for the 'Reflections of Comrade Fidel', which will be a powerful arsenal of ideas and guidance,' the party newspaper Granma said on Wednesday.

Mr Castro, 81 and in poor health, will now be known as 'comrade Fidel' instead of 'El Comandante", as he has long been called, an indication that times are changing half a century after the bearded revolutionary seized power in 1959.

His retirement appeared to be the final stage of a carefully laid transition to Raul Castro, dashing the hopes of their enemies that Fidel Castro's end would send thousands of Cubans onto the streets to demand democratic reforms.

'Raul is the man of the hour. He is firmly in charge. Fidel is off-stage. The Fidel era is over,' said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of a book on Cuba's next leader called 'After Fidel'.

Raul Castro has provisionally held power since his brother underwent emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. He is expected to be chosen as president when the rubber-stamp National Assembly meets on Sunday.

Cuba faces big problems from a weak economy to decrepit transportation and a frustrated younger generation, Mr Latell said in Miami, adding that Raul Castro would address them in a diligent way.

'He's a problem solver. Fidel couldn't admit to problems in the first place. There's no doubt that Raul is running Cuba,' Mr Latell said.

How much of a reformer?
It is unclear how much of a reformer Raul Castro will be.

He has been his brother's closest advisor since they were guerrilla fighters in the Sierra Maestra mountains and had a reputation as a hardliner who could be brutal with his enemies.

But he is also seen as a good manager and delegator.

Analysts say Fidel Castro's continued presence behind the scenes will ensure a certain caution as his brother considers economic reforms.

University student and Communist Youth leaders said on Wednesday they would continue studying and applying Fidel Castro's ideas as 'the leader of the Revolution' if not the head of state anymore.

'We young Cubans, above all, believe in Fidel and trust his decision. Even though it is painful to accept, it could be best for the country,' Patricia Flechilla, head of the University Students Federation, said on a state television newscast.

But Raul Castro should be able to rule without too much interference, said Uva de Aragon of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute.

'Fidel sees himself as playing the role of the great statesman, the grandfather, comforting the people. There was a hint of nostalgia in his resignation letter,' she said.

'Raul has a space to make some changes ... not that I expect significant change right away.' The National Assembly meeting will be important to see what roles are given to vice-president Carlos Lage, seen as a pragmatist, and to reformers, the experts said.

Even if Raul Castro does not take on both of the posts vacated by his brother, he will wield significant power.

'You have to see this as part of a process that started a long time ago,' Ms de Aragon said.

US President George W. Bush, who has tightened a decades-old US economic embargo against Mr Castro's government, said his retirement should begin a democratic transition.

The reaction from Cubans has been subdued. Some were saddened by Mr Castro's retirement and others hoped it would herald economic changes, but no one was predicting major changes to Cuba's one-party rule.

'I wish it were so, but I don't believe it,' said Pedro, a 74-year-old retiree who was lining up outside a bank at dawn on Wednesday to collect a monthly pension of 164 pesos (S$10).

'This is not enough to live on. A pound of pork costs 40 pesos,' said Pedro, who supplements his pension working as a night watchman. 'A man my age should not have to work.' -- REUTERS

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