February 19, 2008, in a message to his compatriots, Fidel Castro officially announced that he would not seek a new presidential term of office. It was, without a doubt, an announcement of supreme historic importance. After being Prime Minister for almost 18 years (February 1959- January 1976) and President of the Republic from December 2, 1976 to July 31, 2006, the most famous revolutionary leader of the twentieth century retired from official political life four days before the elections, which would designate the members of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers and its president (1).
Reasons for this decision
Fidel Castro’s state of health, to a great extent, explains this decision. In addition, he emphasized the need of “psychologically and politically” preparing the Cuban people for his absence. It was, according to him, his “first obligation.” Because of these reasons, he informed the Cuban people of his wish. “To my close compatriots, who did me the great honor of choosing me recently as a member of Parliament […], I tell you that I will not aspire to or accept—I repeat—I will not aspire to or accept, the position of President of the Council of State and Commander in Chief.” (2)
The Cuban leader was lucid about the matter. “I would betray my conscience to hold a position that requires mobility and total dedication, which physically I am not in any condition to offer […]. Always prepare yourselves for the worst possibility. To be as prudent in success as firm in adversity is a principle that can’t be forgotten,” he said. (3)
This decision, is logical since Fidel Castro, in a letter dated December 17, 2007, had already shown his wish of not “hanging on to positions” and “being consistent until the end.” (4) The Cuban population received the news without surprise, calmly and tranquilly, but also with certain sadness as shown at several demonstrations of support and solidarity with their leader in the capital and throughout the country. (5) “Many people are sad today,” reported the Associated Press. “Cuba greeted Castro's resignation Tuesday with a calm that was stunning […].It was like any other day […].no one seemed fearful of sudden disruptions — much less the total collapse — of the socialist system,” added the U.S. press agency. (6)
Reactions in the United States
With respect to the United States, the “meddlesome” comments have multiplied and, as usual, were filled with a whiff of colonialism. President Bush stated that “the international community needs to work with the Cuban people to begin to construct the necessary institutions for democracy.” Republican presidential candidate Arizona Senator John McCain stressed the need “to pressure the Cuban regime.”(7)
Even Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, showed her inability to distance herself from the White House’s obsolete policy. “We need a president who works with the world’s countries, with Europe, with the Western Hemisphere to pressure Cuba.”(8)
Connecticut‘s Democrat Senator Christopher Dodd, launched a call to reason: “The U.S. embargo on Cuba is one of the most ineffective and retrograde foreign policies in history. Today, the United States finally has an opportunity to begin again. Republican Congressman from Arizona, Jeff Flake, publically supported “a new approach towards Cuba by the U.S. government.”(9)
The same day as Fidel Castro’s official announcement, 104 U.S. Congressional members out of a total of 435, sent an open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanding a “tough-minded review” of Washington’s policy towards Cuba. “After 50 years, it is time for us to think and act anew.” The signers stressed the absolute lack of results. “For five decades, US policy has tried economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to force changes in Cuba's government. The orderly succession shows that the policy has not worked.”(10)
But John Negroponte, deputy secretary of State, categorically insisted that the anachronistic and inhumane economic sanctions on Cuba would not be lifted and that the hostile policy towards Cuba would continues its course. (11)
These words illustrate Washington’s inability to accept the reality of a sovereign and independent Cuba. In a cruel, desperate and counterproductive manner, the United States shows no mercy toward a small, Third World country that refuses to bow down, without admitting that its state of siege strategy which has been applied for half a century is a spectacular failure.
European Union countries did not show wisdom, repeating Washington’s rhetoric and forgetting that Havana does not accept any interference in its internal affairs. French Prime Minister François Fillon demanded “evolution of the Cuban regime towards democracy.”(12) The British minister of Foreign Relations launched a call for “greater respect for human rights” and broader political and economic reforms. In Brussels, Javier Solana, high representative for the Foreign Policy and Common Security of the European Union, also alluded to a “process of democratic transition.”(13) The president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, adopted the same speech. (14)
Even Spain, which supported improving relations and dialogue with Havana, could not avoid saying unacceptable and offensive words for the Cubans. The Spanish Ambassador in Washington, Carlos Westendorp, said about the subject: “We can have disagreements with Cuban communities and with our friends in the United States with respect to the relation with Cuba, but they are more tactics than strategies.”(15)
The stated objective of Washington is to return Cuba to its neocolonial status, as the Torricelli Law of 1992 and the Helms Burton Act of 1996 show, as well as the Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba’s two reports of 2004 and 2006. (16) To state that Madrid pursues the same objective is no more than a moral disgrace and a cowardly policy.
Italy, although it favors the elimination of the political and diplomatic sanctions as well as the illegitimate Common Position that Europe imposes on Cuba, was no more inspired, although it had a more constructive focus. Undersecretary of Foreign Relations for Latin America Donato De Santo, also alluded to a “democratic transition” and “respect of human rights.”(17)
The nations of the Old World showed their complete inability to adopt a pragmatic policy, independent of U.S. influence with respect to Cuba. The arrogance and presumption were obvious. It should be remembered that Brussels showed an absolute lack of moral legitimacy in lecturing Cuba about democracy and human rights, which Amnesty International’s annual reports showed. (18) But it is difficult for the Old World to free itself from feeling superior which characterizes them.
Reactions from Latin America and the Third World
In Latin America, the reactions were different. Evo Morales of Bolivia said that it would continue to have excellent relations with Cuba. “It is about a relationship of state to state, of government to government, which does not depend on a single person.”(19)
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva indicated that the “process developed calmly […]. I have deep respect for the Cuban people and I believe that they are the most politicized people of the world […]. Each people choose their political regime and we are going to let the Cubans decide what they want to do. The Cubans have the maturity to solve their problems.” (20) Lula also recalled, “Fidel is the only living myth in the history of humanity.” (21)
The Mexican government reported about “their wish to continue moving forward in the process, initiated several months ago, aimed at full reestablishment of respectful and mutually beneficial relations for Mexico and Cuba,” adding that “given the importance for Mexico of the relationship with Cuba, the Mexican government will continue to pay attention to the political events in this new period of Cuba’s history, with full respect to the self-determination and will of the Cuban people.” (22)
Chile and Guatemala also welcomed Fidel Castro’s decision. Guatemalan President, Álvaro Colom stated that it would not affect in any way the “full and excellent relations with Cuba.” (23) Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, insisted on the fact that Cuba is a sovereign nation. “The Cubans themselves must be the ones who, through open and peaceful dialogue, and without external interference, find the most appropriate road for the well-being of their people. (24)
For his part, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez stated that Fidel Castro “will always be in the vanguard since men like Fidel never retire.” The Bolivarian leader added, “the Cuban people have shown the world, and above all the empire, that the Cuban Revolution does not depend on one person, a group, or circumstances.” (25)
In South Africa, the governing National African Congress (NAC), offered homage to the Cuban leader describing him as a “living legend.” “The Cuban people, under the leadership of President Castro, got involved in the freedom of the oppressed people of Africa, specifically South Africa, stressed the NAC statement, recalling that close to 300,000 Cuban soldiers contributed to the independence of Angola and the fall of apartheid. “Not only have they contributed to the transformation of our country, but they have continued supporting our reconstruction and development efforts, sending their doctors.” Numerous leaders of the world also welcomed Fidel Castro’s decision and showed their solidarity with Cuba. (26)
The Cuban people discovered the integrity of the global reactions disseminated during the February 20, 2008 Mesa Redonda television program. Its sensibilities were only offended, as always, when it was about their independence before the contempt of some western countries, unable to understand that only language based on respect, reciprocity and non-interference in internal matters is heard by the Cubans.
To speak of the process of transition would be a serious error. Cubans do not want in any way to return to a market economy which would be synonymous with an attack against their social conquests and their sovereignty. In reality, it is about a process of revolutionary continuity, deeply rooted in the heart of Cuban society and, undoubtedly, irreversible.
Those in the United States and Western Europe who thought that the Cubans would receive the news of Fidel Castro’s retirement joyfully completely ignore the realities of Cuba today. The great majority of the population professes affection, admiration and infinite respect for their political, historical, moral and spiritual leader. On the other hand, if the Cubans have more or less accepted the fact that Fidel Castro does not wish to aspire to the presidency of the Republic, they categorically deny that he gave up his rank of Commander in Chief.
Cuba is not sensitive to pressure or blackmail and even less to threats. The revolutionary government will not accept any demand from Washington or from Western Europe. This reality has to be understood by those who try to decide Cuba’s destiny instead of the Cubans themselves.
Beyond any ideological consideration, it should be recognized that Fidel Castro has made it possible for José Martí’s country to win its independence and its liberty, that it could acquire a level of human development similar to the most advanced countries and that it could enjoy international prestige outside of what is common in the Third World. Because of that, the Cubans will be eternally grateful to him.
(1) Fidel Castro Ruz, «Mensaje del Comandante en Jefe», Granma, February 19, 2008.
(4) Fidel Castro Ruz, «Carta de Fidel a la Mesa Redonda», December 17,2007.
(5) The author is in Havana.
(6) Will Weissert, «Castro Retirement Managed From Start», The Associated Press, February 19, 2008.
(7) The Associated Press, «Washington Quotes on Castro. U.S. Government Reactions to Cuban President Fidel Castro’s Resignation Monday», February 19, 2008.
(8) The Associated Press/El Nuevo Herald, «Washington ve a Raúl Castro como un ‘dictador lite’», February 19, 2008.
(9) The Associated Press, «Washington Quotes on Castro. U.S. Government Reactions to Cuban President Fidel Castro’s Resignation Monday», op. cit.
(10) Agence France Presse, «Des parlementaires américains exigent un changement de politique envers Cuba», February 19, 2008; Agence France Presse, «US Lawmakers Urge Review of Cuba Policy», February 19, 2008.
(11) The Associated Press, «US Says It Won’t Lift Cuba Embargo», February 19, 2008.
(12) Agence France Presse, «Fillon: la ‘vraie question’ pour Cuba est celle de la démocratie», February 19, 2008.
(13) The Associated Press/El Nuevo Herald, «Bush: Salida de Castro debe ser inicio de transición», February 19, 2008.
(14) Wilfredo Cancio Isla, «El fin de una era», El Nuevo Herald, February 19, 2008.
(15) Wilfredo Cancio Isla, «España favorece diálogo abierto con La Habana», El Nuevo Herald, February 19, 2008.
(16) Salim Lamrani, Fidel Castro, Cuba et les Etats-Unis (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2006), chapter IV.
(17) The Associated Press/El Nuevo Herald, «Expectativa mundial por renuncia de Fidel Castro», February 19, 2008.
(18) Amnesty International, 2007 Report.
(19) The Associated Press/El Nuevo Herald, «Expectativa mundial por renuncia de Fidel Castro», op. cit.
(21) Libération, «Des appels à davantage de démocratie à Cuba», February 20, 2008.
(22) The Associated Press/El Nuevo Herald, «Expectativa mundial por renuncia de Fidel Castro», op. cit.
(24) Gerardo Reyes, «Sorpresa y dudas en América Latina por renuncia de Castro», El Nuevo Herald, February 20, 2008.
(25) Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, «Chávez: Fidel no renuncia, siempre estará en la vanguardia», February 19, 2008.
(26) Granma, «Personalidades mundiales elogian altura política de Fidel», February 21, 2008.
Salim Lamrani is a professor, writer and French journalist specializing in U.S.-Cuba relations. He has published the following titles : Washington contre Cuba (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2005), Cuba face à l’Empire (Genève: Timeli, 2006) y Fidel Castro, Cuba et les Etats-Unis (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2006). His latest book is titled Double Morale. Cuba, l’Union européenne et les droits de l’homme (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2008).
This article can be freely reproduced upon condition of citing the author and source.
Translated by Dana Lubow 3-10-08
Edited by Robert Sandels