The news that Fidel Castro will step down as Cuba’s head of state after nearly half a century of rule has been front-page news around the world.
Reaction across the Americas has been mixed, with some leaders singing Castro’s praises and others pooh-poohing the development as business as usual.
In Costa Rica, which does not maintain official diplomatic ties with Cuba, President Oscar Arias dismissed Castro’s decision.
“There will not be any substantial change that will allow the establishment of a Western democracy in Cuba until Fidel is dead,” said Arias, according to newswire EFE.
Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry said Costa Rica was “continuing to support the people of Cuba’s desires for democracy, just as it reiterates its opposition to the (U.S.) economic blockade, which has harmed and caused suffering to the Cuban people.”
In a statement posted Tuesday on the Web site of government-controlled newspaper Granma, Castro said, “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…It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer.”
His replacement, expected to be brother Raúl, will be decided at a meeting of the newly elected parliament on Sunday.
Although some Costa Rican residents confessed ignorance or disinterest in the news of Castro’s departure, shoppers questioned by The Tico Times broadly welcomed it.
Alejandra Oconotrillo, a 25-year-old student, said, “I think there will be more democracy, more freedom and liberty with Raúl in charge. Communism is finished so something needs to change in Cuba.”
Sonia Marta García, 71, agreed. “Now they can move toward democracy, moving away from the communist regime and freeing themselves from poverty. Fidel Castro resigning is very important for freedom in Cuba after years of dictatorship.”
Guillermo Vargas, 33, sounded a more cautious note. “(Power) will just pass on to his brother. There will be no change.”
Francisco Quesada, 70, said, “It is too early to say what will happen. The family will stay in power so we need to wait a few months to see if Cuba stays the same or if it changes.”
Castro has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he ceded power to his brother on medical grounds. Although Castro’s health is a state secret, it is widely known he underwent surgery for intestinal and digestive problems, believed to be diverticulitis.
He had recently hinted he would step down, declaring that it was his duty “not to cling to positions, much less to stand in the way of younger persons.”
The 81-year-old Castro, who has ruled the Caribbean island for 49 years, is a key figure in 20th century history, given his influence and Cuba’s strategic importance during the Cold War.
The presence of an openly communist state less than 100 miles from the United States almost led to nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Despite repeated assassination attempts by the CIA and a trade embargo, Castro has outlasted nine U.S. presidents.
Asked about the announcement during his current tour of Africa, President George W. Bush said, “The question really should be, what does this mean for the people of Cuba? They are the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro.”
Bush later stated Castro’s retirement “should be the beginning of a democratic transition for the people of Cuba…The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.”
State Department spokesmen Sean McCormack said there would be no change in policies toward Cuba.
McCormack said he doubted there would be much change on the island. “At this point you have seen no real difference between the government headed by Raúl Castro as opposed to the government headed by Fidel Castro over the past 50 years.”
The move is unlikely to have any practical impact on Central America as, since Castro first fell ill, his day-to-day leadership role has been replaced not only in Cuba, but also in grander geopolitical terms.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has effectively replaced Castro as the socialist figurehead in Latin America and is now the de facto leader and reference point for left-wing movements on the continent.
Emilio Alvarez, former Nicaraguan minister of foreign relations, told The Nica Times that the dictatorship is too entrenched to open up and that “change won’t come to Cuba until both of the Castro brothers disappear.”
Edmundo Jarquín, former presidential candidate and leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), said Castro’s announcement makes official something that has been known for a long time.
Castro’s move, he said, was unlikely to affect Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, as the “Sandinista revolution has more to do with Ortega and Chávez that it does Castro.”
In an interview with The Nica Times last week, former Sandinista Vice President Sergio Ramírez also noted that Castro and Cuba now play second fiddle to Chávez and Venezuela in Daniel Ortega’s discourse.
For his part, Chávez, quoted by the state owned Bolivarian News Agency, reacted by saying, “Fidel is not resigning…Fidel will always be in the vanguard. Men like Fidel never retire.
“The people of Cuba have demonstrated to the world, and above all to the empire, that the Cuban revolution does not depend on one person… It is a revolution that was sowed and grew in the bowels of Cuba… in the essence of its people…Wherever people are fighting for the cause of humanity, Fidel and Cuba will be there.”
Ortega issued a similar statement, calling Castro a “historic figurehead of universal transcendence.”
In Madrid on Tuesday, four political prisoners released by Cuba last weekend, told the press that they did not expect any change in Cuba following the announcement.
“You’re excited about it, but Fidel will be there behind the scenes,” said dissident José Ramón, according to newswire EFE. “If there is no political debate, there can be no transformation.”
Human rights charity Amnesty International, while criticizing the continued U.S. embargo, offered a cautious welcome to the news.
“The new Cuban leadership must take advantage of this change to introduce much needed reforms to guarantee the protection of human rights,” said Amnesty special adviser Javier Zuñiga.