Fidel Quits

Following up on Jeff's post below, here's my take from Miami on the news from Havana:

From the New York Times:
Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said Tuesday that he will not return to lead the country as president or commander-in-chief, retiring as head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution.

Castro, 81, said in a statement to the country that he would not seek a new presidential term when the National Assembly meets on Feb. 24.

"To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honor in recent days of electing me a member of parliament ... I communicate to you that I will not aspire to or accept -- I repeat not aspire to or accept -- the positions of President of Council of State and Commander in Chief," Castro said in the statement published on the Web site of the Communist Party's Granma newspaper.

The National Assembly or legislature is expected to nominate his brother and designated successor Raul Castro, 76, as president in place of Castro, who has not appeared in public for almost 19 months after being stricken by an undisclosed illness.
Cue the dancing on Calle Ocho.

There is no denying that this will be huge news here in Miami today, and a lot of people will be hauling out their plans, if not their suitcases, to get ready for a trip back to Havana. But on a practical level, this changes nothing. The embargo is still in place and can't be lifted with the wave of a pen on an executive order because it's been made into law. And other than making it official, Fidel Castro's statement basically makes permanent what has been in place since July 2006 when he "temporarily" relinquished power to his brother Raul due to illness.

In the short term, today's news will mean a lot of excited talk and tearful hopes that at long last there might be change. A change to what, though, is hard to tell. A lot of people dream of a "free Cuba," meaning free of Castro since the history of the nation has never truly been an exercise in Jeffersonian democracy. The Castro regime has been just one more in a long series of oligarchies. The difference, though, is that it has been intensely personal, and the hatred of Castro himself has colored our dealings with Cuba. As long as there's a Castro in the game, be it Fidel, Raul (or the mysterious Ramon who is allegedly the body-double standing in for Fidel since, according to one of my colleagues, Fidel died in September 2006), the news from Havana this morning won't change anything.

More's the pity. I agree wholeheartedly with the most ardent anti-Castroites that he is an evil old coot and a thug of the first order, but the way we as a nation have treated the situation has only enabled Castro to stay in power for nearly fifty years. Every time we enact some law that tightens the embargo or restricts travel by relatives here in the States, it only makes it easier for the Cuban government to point and blame it on the Yanquis for making things worse. In terms of oppression and denial of freedom, Cuba is in the same league with China, Vietnam, and a host of other countries that we not only do business with but welcome their leaders to our country to sign lucrative deals for the buying and selling of watches, bicycles, and child-labor-produced sportswear. If we had bombarded Cuba with McDonald's and NAPA Auto Parts instead of John Birch Society rhetoric and Radio Marti, chances are that Fidel Castro's revolution would have been marginalized by a stampede of Nikes and iPods. As it is, we have left the natural flow of exporting capitalism to Cuba to Canada, the EU, and the rest of the Americas, leaving our influence fifty years to leeward. It's a lot easier to effect a change in a country when you're standing in the middle of it counting your money rather than standing outside the fence and screaming at them.

(The Miami Herald is all over the story. As of this writing, English language version of Granma, the official Cuban party newspaper, is silent.)


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