M A I N   N E W S

Fidel bids farewell

Fidel CastroHavana, February 19
Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said today that he would not return to lead the country as the President or Commander-in-Chief, retiring as the head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution.

Castro (81), who has not appeared in public for almost 19 months, said in a statement to the country that he would not seek a new presidential term when the National Assembly would meet on February 24.

“To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honour 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 website 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 the President. Raul Castro has been running the country since emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding forced Castro to delegate power on July 31, 2006.

The title of “Comandante en Jefe” or Commander-in-Chief, was created for Castro in 1958 as overall leader of the guerrilla forces that swept down from the mountains of eastern Cuba to overthrow US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Castro’s retirement draws the curtain on a political career that spanned the Cold War and survived US enmity, CIA assassination attempts and the demise of Soviet bloc Communism.

A charismatic leader famous for his long speeches delivered in his green military fatigues, Castro is admired in the Third World for standing up to the US but is considered by his opponents a tyrant, who suppressed freedom.

His illness and departure from Cuba’s helm have raised doubts about the future of the Western Hemisphere’s only Communist state.

“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 his statement.

“They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement,” he said.

His announcement was issued hours before dawn. The streets of Havana were empty and the news of Castro’s retirement from politics had not reached Cubans yet by radio or the printed edition of Granma.

“It was logical for Fidel to quit because he has been saying that he was not well,” said a musician, who was leaving a cabaret.

“But nothing will change until the government makes the economic reforms that Cuba needs,” he said.

US President George W Bush, in Rwanda as part of a trip to Africa, had no immediate comment on Castro’s plans to step down, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. — Reuters

Bush hopes for democratic transition

KIGALI: US President George W. Bush said he hoped the retirement of Cuban leader Fidel Castro would be the beginning of democratic transition in Cuba. “I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of a democratic transition,” Bush said at a news conference in Rwanda during a five-country African trip.

Bush said the first step should be to free political prisoners, and the international community should work with Cubans to start building institutions necessary for democracy.

“Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections, and I mean free and I mean fair,: Bush said. “Not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy,” he added.

“And we’re going to help. The US will help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty.”



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