Fidel Castro stepping down as Cuba’s leader

Ailing revolutionary icon Fidel Castro permanently gave up the Cuban presidency on Tuesday, ending five decades of ironclad rule of the island marked by his brash defiance of the United States.

In a message published by the online version of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, the 81-year-old Castro said he would not seek the presidency again when it is decided later this week.

“I neither will aspire to nor will I accept — I repeat — I neither will aspire to nor will I accept, the position of president of the council of state and commander in chief,” Castro wrote, almost 19 months after undergoing intestinal surgery and handing power temporarily to his brother Raul Castro.

“It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion that I am not in physical condition to offer,” he said.

Castro did not say who he thought should be his successor as president, though most analysts believe his brother Raul Castro, 76, is the obvious choice.

But the elder Castro’s reference to a “middle generation” suggests that younger leaders such as Vice President Carlos Lage should not be ruled out.

The Cuban Revolution “also has the middle generation that learned together with us the elements of the complex, almost unknowable art of organizing and directing a Revolution,” Castro wrote, in what could be a hint at leaders to come.

Guerrilla revolutionary and communist idol, Castro held out against history and turned tiny Cuba into a thorn in the paw of the mighty capitalist United States.

The longest ruling leader in the Americas overthrew Fulgencio Batista to take power in 1959 and kept a tight clamp on dissent at home while defining himself abroad with his defiance of Washington.

He has said he would never retire from politics, though illness forced him into seclusion in the last 19 months.

Out of public sight since his surgery, seen only in videos and photos, Castro has often published columns in the Cuban media titled “Reflections of a commander in chief.”

“I am not saying farewell. I want only to fight as a soldier of ideas. I will continue writing under the title ‘Reflections of Comrade Fidel.’ I will be one more weapon in the arsenal that you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I will be careful,” he wrote Tuesday.

Castro’s message came just five days before a historic session in the National Assembly in which he was up for re-election for another five-year mandate.

Raul Castro said a month ago that the National Assembly would elect Cuba’s next president on February 24, amid speculation that his brother — for the first time in five decades — might not be its choice.

Cuba’s National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon had said that while his recovery is ongoing, it was up to Fidel Castro to decide whether he will stay on as president, if reelected in February.

Some speculate Raul Castro may become president permanently or that another regime official might move up the ladder, technically ending Fidel Castro’s official dominance of the regime.

While Castro appeared to be in better health than a year ago, many Cuba-watchers believed he would never be able to resume the full, wide-ranging powers he used to wield.

Few, however, doubt that Fidel will remain influential.

Famed for his rumpled olive fatigues, straggly beard, and the cigars he reluctantly gave up for his health, Castro dodged all his enemies could throw at him in nearly half a century in power, including assassination plots, a US-backed invasion bid, and a punishing US trade embargo.

In Madrid, Spain’s Latin America minister Trinidad Jimenez said Castro’s decision to give up Cuba’s presidency will give his brother Raul more power to carry out reforms.