Cuban president steps down after 50 years in power
President Fidel Castro of Cuba holds his country's flag during a speech in Havana marking May Day, 2006. Castro resigned as Cuba's President on February 19, 2008. (Photo: ©Jose Goitia/Redux)
After ruling Cuba since 1959, Fidel Castro resigned as President of the communist island nation. Castro made the announcement in a message published by the Communist Party publication Granma. His resignation could prove to be the beginning of the most sweeping changes Cuba has seen in a half century.
The announcement came just days before Cuba’s national assembly was to meet and select Cuba’s President. In his resignation announcement, Castro said that he “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.”
Castro, 81, had been in failing health for much of this decade. In July 2006, he temporarily handed control of Cuba over to his brother, Raúl, now 76, while he underwent surgery and faced a long recovery. Since then, Castro has ruled Cuba from behind the scenes, while his brother has been the public face. Castro’s resignation all but guarantees that his brother will assume outright leadership of Cuba.
A History of Conflict
Castro was an active member in Cuban revolutionary activities. In 1953, he led 160 fighters, including Raúl, in an unsuccessful attack on a Cuban army post. Most of the fighters were killed, and Castro and his brother were captured. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years in jail, while Raúl was sentenced to 13 years. They were released in 1954 in an act of political amnesty and left for Mexico. In 1956, they returned to Cuba and waged a guerrilla war against President Fulgencio Batista and his regime. The revolution ended January 1, 1959, when Batista fled the country.
As leader of the revolutionaries, Castro took control of Cuba. He promised a restoration of Cuba’s 1940 constitution, free elections, a free press, and individual property rights. Instead, he positioned Cuba as a communist state, which became allied with the Soviet Union.
Castro’s ties with the Soviet Union led to strained relations with the United States. Castro beat back a U.S.-supported invasion by Cuban counter-revolutionaries in 1961. The invasion is known as the Bay of Pigs. A year later, Castro allowed the Soviet Union to install nuclear weapons in Cuba, which is only 90 miles from the southern coast of Florida. This action pushed the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of war. Armed conflict was avoided, but the U.S. imposed broad economic sanctions on Cuba and numerous travel restrictions on Cubans and those seeking to enter Cuba. Those sanctions and restrictions are still in place today.
While the country struggled economically, Castro used the sanctions as propaganda in his ongoing struggle with the United States. His willingness to stand up to the U.S. has made Castro a hero to many current leaders in Latin and South America, especially Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. Chávez has been one of Castro’s most vocal and visible supporters, especially since the onset of Castro’s most recent health problems.
Cuba’s Future Uncertain
Although Castro has resigned, he has vowed to remain involved in politics and Cuban affairs.
“This is not my farewell to you,” Castro wrote in his resignation letter. “My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas.” Castro said he will fight this battle via a series of political writings.
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