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Castro to be Cuba's ideologue, elder statesman

Fidel Castro will play the role of Cuban communism's ideologue and elder statesman after giving up the reins of power for the first time since the 1959 revolution.

A woman walks past a grafitti reading "Long live Fidel" in Havana February 19, 2008. (REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa)

Castro, 81 years old and in poor health, announced on Tuesday that he would not seek a new term as president or leader of Cuba's armed forces when the National Assembly meets on Sunday.

The bearded revolutionary will have no government duties but he stays on as first secretary of the Communist Party and will continue writing articles on domestic and world affairs, indicating that no dramatic change is in sight for one of the world's last communist nations.

"We will continue waiting for the 'Reflections of companero (comrade) Fidel', which will be a powerful arsenal of ideas and guidance," the ruling Communist Party's Granma newspaper said on Wednesday.

His retirement after nearly half a century at the helm set the stage for an orderly transfer of power to his brother Raul, who has been running Cuba as acting president since mid-2006, when Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery.

For decades, Fidel Castro's enemies have hoped his death or resignation would send thousands of Cubans onto the streets to demand democratic reforms in the communist state. But when he quit, the reaction from Cubans was subdued.

Some were saddened by Castro's retirement and others hoped it would herald economic changes, but no one was predicting major changes to Cuba's one-party rule.

There were more police that usual in dilapidated and densely-populated central Havana, the scene of anti-Castro riots that sparked an exodus of 35,000 Cubans who took to the sea in rafts to reach the United States in the summer of 1994.

But Havana's residents are going about their lives as usual this week. Many sat at home on Tuesday night watching their favorite baseball team Industriales lose. Few appeared to be talking about Castro's departure from power.

A member of a visiting European delegation said he was surprised the issue was not even mentioned at meetings with a vice-minister and the mayor of Havana.


Castro, who seized power in an armed revolution in 1959, has not appeared in public since his health crisis forced him to delegate power to his brother on July 31, 2006.

Cuba's National Assembly, a rubber-stamp legislature, is expected to formally nominate Raul Castro, 76, as president when it meets on Sunday.

Castro's retirement raised expectations for change on the island -- and calls for democracy by his arch-enemy, the United States -- but Cuba experts said limited economic reforms were more likely than a swift political transformation.

For some Cubans who have lost hope of seeing reform, that's a change of leader to keep everything the same.

"I wish it were so, but I don't believe it. Truth is, I don't believe in anything anymore," said Pedro, a 74-year-old retiree who was lining up outside a bank at dawn on Wednesday to collect a meager monthly pension of 164 pesos ($7).

"This is not enough to live on. A pound of pork costs 40 pesos," said Pedro, who supplements his pension working as a night watchman. "A man my age should not have to work."

"It's Raul now. Let's see is he takes power and makes some of the changes he spoke about, because if this does not improve, I don't know what will happen," said Yadira, a Havana housewife.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who has tightened the decades-old economic embargo against Castro's government, said his retirement should begin a democratic transition.

Bush's call for democracy in Cuba was posted on an electronic billboard on the facade of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana on Tuesday night.

But there were no Cubans reading Bush's message in the heavily-policed area around the U.S. diplomatic mission.

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