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Castro’s Exit Stokes Debate Over Prospects for Cuban Reform

An ailing Cuban president Fidel Castro announced Tuesday that he will resign from his post, ending his 49-year presidency at age 81. Two Cuban-American analysts discuss Castro's resignation and whether the move will open avenues for new reforms in Cuba.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Castro's departure. We begin with a Ray Suarez report on the Castro years.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    The news had been anticipated for months: After 49 years, Cuban leader Fidel Castro would be stepping down. A Cubavision newscaster quoted Castro's resignation letter this morning.

  • CUBAN TV NEWSCASTER (through translator):

    My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath; that's what I can offer. I am saying that I will neither aspire to nor accept — I repeat, I will neither aspire to or accept — the positions of president of the state council and commander-in-chief.

    Fortunately, our process can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early days of the revolution.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    On the streets of Havana today, Cubans showed little surprise.

  • JOSE MANUEL ALVAREZ, Cuban Citizen (through translator):

    Yes, I think if a person feels he's not able physically to fulfill his role, he must end it.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, where thousands of anti-Castro exiles came to live, customers at this coffee shop also showed little emotion.

  • DAMIAN ARGIOLA, Cuban Immigrant:

    Unless they turn the whole thing upside-down and they bring democracy and free elections, and every one of them is out of Cuba, nothing has changed.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    President Bush, the 10th American president to tangle with the Cuban dictator, immediately welcomed the news.

    GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections, and I mean free and I mean fair, not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy. The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Cuba's national assembly is scheduled to nominate a successor this weekend. Castro's younger brother Raul is the expected choice. The 76-year-old defense minister and head of the armed forces has been running the country since 2006, when Fidel was struck with serious intestinal illness.

    The world has seen little of Fidel Castro since. The most recent pictures show a feeble old man in a track suit, a pale, flickering shadow of the cocky 32-year-old guerrilla who shook up the western hemisphere.

    In 1959, Fidel Castro came down from his guerrilla stronghold in the Sierra Maestra mountains and seized power after toppling right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista.

    Castro quickly nationalized U.S.-owned companies and property in Cuba, along with church holdings and the farms and businesses of wealthy and middle-class Cubans, and began an alliance with America's superpower rival, the Soviet Union.

    The hardships placed upon the Cuban economy and Castro's repression of his Cuban opposition sparked a series of mass migrations that would profoundly affect the United States and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.

    The new American president, John Kennedy, picked up one of his predecessor's plans: an armed overthrow of Castro. The CIA trained an army of 1,200 Cuban exiles to invade and begin a popular uprising.

    On April 17, 1961, the small counterrevolutionary force stormed the beach on Cuba's southeast coast. Many Cubans rallied to Castro, and his forces quickly put down the Bay of Pigs invasion.

    Months later, in early 1962, the U.S. imposed an economic embargo that continues to this day.

    Later that year came another confrontation and even more danger. On October 16th, U.S. spy planes photographed the construction of a Soviet missile site in Cuba. A crisis ensued which brought the world the closest it had ever come to nuclear annihilation.

    A U.S. naval blockade, called a quarantine, was forced on Cuba. Kennedy took to the airwaves and warned of the consequences.

    JOHN F. KENNEDY, Former President of the United States: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    It took 12 days of intense negotiations and U.N. diplomatic efforts, but the Soviets backed down and promised to remove the missiles from Cuba in return for a U.S. commitment not to invade the Caribbean island.

    Castro put down dissent. Economic conditions worsened. Emigration to the United States surged.

    Exiles and their families filled American cities and prospered in places like Miami's Little Havana. These immigrants became a force in American politics and a vocal bulwark against any effort to lift the embargo or reopen diplomatic relations.

    All the while, Castro endured. He rallied his faithful supporters in the capital with his trademark hours-long, fiery speeches full of nationalist and socialist rhetoric. Crowds of thousands turned out to listen.

    But even after Castro lost Soviet support and subsidies, he found new allies in the hemisphere in leftist leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, who said they were inspired by the Cuban revolution and joined Castro in delighted defiance of Uncle Sam.

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