(Adds U.S. commerce secretary, investors)
By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA Feb 19 Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro
stepped down on Tuesday 49 years after taking power in an armed
revolution, closing the book on a Cold War career that made him
an icon to leftists and a tyrant to his foes.
Castro, 81, who has not appeared in public since undergoing
stomach surgery almost 19 months ago, said he would not seek a
new term as president or as leader of Cuba's armed forces when
the National Assembly meets on Sunday.
His retirement raised expectations for change on the communist
island -- and calls for democracy by Castro's arch-enemy, the
United States -- but Cuba experts said limited economic reforms
were more likely than swift political transformation.
"I will not aspire to or accept -- I repeat not aspire to or
accept -- the positions of president of the Council of State and
commander-in-chief," Castro said in a statement published in the
Communist Party's Granma newspaper.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who has tightened the
decades-old economic embargo against Castro's government, said
his retirement should begin a democratic transition.
"Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair
elections. And I mean free and I mean fair," Bush said in
Rwanda during a tour of Africa.
Cuba's National Assembly, a rubber-stamp legislature, is
expected to nominate Castro's brother and designated successor
Raul Castro, 76, as president. The defense minister has been
running the country since emergency surgery forced his older
brother to delegate power on July 31, 2006.
Raul Castro has promoted more open debate about the state-run
economy's failings but is unlikely to make bold political changes
to the one-party state. Fidel Castro will remain influential as
first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.
"This is a crucial moment. Cuba wants change, the people
want change," said Oswaldo Paya, Cuba's best-known dissident.
Frank Mora, a political scientist at the National War College
in Washington, said Castro's successors will likely be forced to
head down paths he would not approve. "He will not go into some
sunset nor will he become that crazy uncle in the attic, but they
are pushing him up those stairs," Mora said.
IN CUBA, SOME SADNESS, NO SURPRISE
Residents on the quiet streets of Havana reacted without
surprise, some with sadness, to Castro's retirement, first
announced on Granma's Web site in the middle of the night.
Castro has looked frail in his few videotaped appearances in
the months since the first news that he was too weak to rule.
"The Revolution will continue. Fidel resigned in time. It is a
wise decision. He let Cubans get used to his absence," said
Lazaro, a building administrator sweeping a lobby in slippers.
In Miami, the heartland of exiled opposition to the Castro
brothers, reaction was subdued, in contrast to celebrations after
the 2006 announcement of his illness.
"It's very good that Fidel resigns. But if Fidel dies, it's
better," said Juan Acosta, who left Cuba in 1980, as he stopped to
buy a newspaper in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
"This is a succession from one tyrant to another. We
shouldn't kid ourselves, while Fidel is alive, he's running the
show," Cuban-born U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez,
said in an interview with Reuters.
The Democrats vying to represent their party in the November
U.S. election, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, suggested
they might lift the trade embargo if Cuba pursued democratic
reforms. Republican front-runner John McCain said the United
States must keep up the pressure.
European governments said Castro's retirement could open
the door to democratic change.
The charismatic Castro led the bearded and cigar-chomping
guerrillas who overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in
1959. He then turned Cuba into a communist state on Washington's
doorstep and became the world's longest-serving head of state,
Castro survived a CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles at the
Bay of Pigs in 1961, as well as assassination attempts, the U.S.
embargo, and an economic crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of
Soviet bloc communism.
He also played a role in taking the world to the brink of
nuclear war in 1962 when he let Moscow put ballistic missiles
in Cuba, leading to a 13-day stand-off between U.S. President
John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Famous for long speeches delivered in green military fatigues,
Castro is admired in the developing world for standing up to the
United States but considered by opponents a dictator who
suppressed freedom and wrecked Cuba's economy.
His retirement reminded investors of future windfalls on the
biggest island in the Caribbean after the embargo ends, from more
tourism to potentially ballooning nickel and cigar exports.
Stock in Canada's Sherritt International, the largest
foreign investor in Cuba with nickel mining and oil and gas
operations, rose as much as 6 percent to C$15.57 on Tuesday.
Cuba's leadership has showed no sign of collapse.
"Fortunately, our Revolution can still count on cadres from
the old guard and others who were very young in the early
stages of the process," Castro said in Tuesday's statement. He
will continue to write his newspaper columns.
"This is not my farewell to you. My only wish is to fight
as a soldier in the battle of ideas ... It will be just another
weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard."
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, Deborah
Charles in Rwanda, Andy Sullivan, Sue Pleming and Adriana
Garcia in Washington, Daniel Trotta in New York and Michael
Christie, Jim Loney and Tom Brown in Miami; Editing by Patricia