Cuba has a new president. Voting on February 24, Cuba’s newly elected National Assembly selected former First Vice President Raúl Castro as President of the Council of State, the official whom Cuba’s constitution designates as President of the Republic.

Fidel Castro, prime minister for 18 years, president for 31 years, relinquished presidential duties to Vice President Raúl Castro on July 31, 2006 because of illness. Writing for the Granma newspaper on February 19, he announced, “I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief.”

He had endeavored “to avoid raising expectations” and “to prepare our people both politically and psychologically for my absence after so many years of struggle.” Castro expressed appreciation on being elected to parliament. The news spread worldwide.

Sympathetic analysts pointed out that change on Castro’s own terms represented a defeat for Washington. Former British Minister of Energy Brian Wilson wrote, for example, “By going quietly, Castro has again confounded the U.S. and its 50-year obsession.”

Ireland’s Communist Party joined other observers in noting Castro’s “central role” in the Cubans’ struggle to “secure national independence and begin the long journey of revolutionary transformation.”

The observation was commonplace that youthful and collective leadership was on the way. Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations emphasized Castro’s particular role in pushing younger leaders into positions of power.

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives in Washington commended Castro for “creating the political space for an internal debate about how to preserve the legacy of the revolution, strengthen the legitimacy of the Communist Party, and address the bread and butter issues.”

Castro’s pre-eminent historical role was highlighted, also his personification of hard, unending work. For Brazilian President Lula da Silva, “Fidel Castro is one of the great legends in the history of humanity.” Havana history professor Natacha Santiago holds that the Cuban Revolution has become “the project of an entire nation and not just one man.”

But “people like Fidel never retire,” asserted Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. That’s because “a communist has to dedicate one hundred percent of his or her energies, work and life,” declared a Granma writer. “My only wish,” wrote Castro “is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas.” He will continue writing his “Reflections by Comrade Fidel,” – 87 of them since March 2007.

Academician Néstor Kohan sees the battle of ideas as Fidel Castro’s signal historical contribution, pointing out that he sees Marxism as elevating ethics, values and culture over “the development of productive forces.” Revolutionaries, attentive to “duty,” apply concrete notions of “justice, anti-capitalist rebellion…, patriotism, internationalism, anti-imperialism, and popular self-esteem” to struggles that in the words of martyred Cuban Communist leader Julio Antonio Mella, “haven’t even begun yet.”

The big news seemed to cause few ripples. Telephoning friends in Havana, Canadian author Arnold August learned that “basically everything is normal – a normal day.” Asked about changing U.S policies toward Cuba, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in Washington couldn’t ‘imagine that happening anytime soon.”

According to the New York Times, reaction in Miami “ranged from scattered jubilation to widespread indifference.” In Cuban sections, reporters outnumbered people willing to talk about Fidel Castro.

Meanwhile, U.S. happenings caused Castro to abandon an earlier resolve to put off writing any “reflections” for ten days following his momentous announcement. Discovering that U.S. presidential aspirants were united in “exacting urgent demands from Cuba to avoid the risk of losing a single vote,” he wrote February 21 that “we need to open ideological fire against them.”

He noted they all sought the release of alleged political prisoners in Cuba and were adamant on progress toward “democracy.” They approved of economic sanctions and the Bush Administration’s stepped-up travel ban.

But Illinois Senator Barack Obama has called for easing restrictions on Cuban Americans seeking to support and visit relatives in Cuba. And alone among his rivals, Obama indicated that as president he would meet with Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro “without preconditions.” He called upon Washington to “take steps to normalize relations” in response to favorable signs from Cuba.

[Update]

Congressional letter on U.S. Cuban policies

Fidel Castro’s decision to no longer serve as president of Cuba impelled a bipartisan group of 104 members of Congress to send a letter Feb. 19 to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Excerpts follow:

“The decision by Cuba’s government to choose new leadership should be the occasion for a tough-minded review of U.S. policy. President Castro has departed from his office voluntarily. An orderly succession has occurred in Cuba … For five decades, U.S. policy has tried economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to force changes in Cuba’s government.” Yet, as the members of Congress noted, “Allies and adversaries alike … engage the Cuban government directly on diplomatic issues and make billions of dollars in economic investments.”

They concluded: “After fifty years, it is time for us to think and act anew.”

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