Castro resigns, reaction in Florida muted

02/19/08 Mitch E. Perry
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After nearly 50 years in office, 81-year-old Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced today that he is stepping down because his health will not allow him to accept another term as president of the ruling Council of State.

The move comes five days before the National Assembly is to meet elect new office holders.

Castro has effectively been out of power the last 19 months, after an acute infection in his colon forced him to undergo emergency surgery. His 76-year-old brother Raul has been in control since that time.

The reaction by Cuban exiles in Florida and around the country was extremely muted.

Frank Pina is a Miami small business owner. He says Cubans deserve change.

President Bush, traveling in Rwanda on a tour of African nations, greeted the news by saying that the resignation should be the beginning of a democratic transition in Cuba leading to free elections. Bush called for Cuba to release political prisoners and to begin building “institutions necessary for democracy that eventually will lead to free and fair elections.”

Such statements were similarly echoed by presidential candidates John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

This afternoon several South Florida Cuban Democrats expressed caution more than anything else about the announcement by Fidel Castro.

Joe Garcia is the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party Chairman and executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, one of the strongest Cuban-American lobbyist groups. He said the switch from Fidel to Raul is moving from a ruthless visionary to a ruthless pragmatist.

Raul Martinez, the former mayor of the Cuban rich city of Hialeah, said for too long that the U.S. has penalized Castro’s Cuba. But, Martinez says, it’s too soon to declare a complete change of policy toward the Communist island.

Garcia of the Cuban American Foundation is running against GOP incumbent Mario Diaz-Balart in another Congressional race this fall. He agrees that demanding a removal of the four-decade-plus embargo against the Cuban government and its people is perhaps "too big of a bite" right now.

Tampa resident Al Arteaga, 85, visits Cuba as a member of Pastors for Peace, the faith-based group that brings donated humanitarian goods to Cuba annually. He doesn’t think the situation will change much in Cuba immediately.

Virtually every politician in Florida and many nationally weighed in on today’s news.

Tampa businessman Al Fox is with the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, and is a longtime advocate against the embargo. He says absolutely nothing will change in Cuba in the short term. He says he is discouraged that China and Venezuela have gained access to Cuba over the past couple of years.

Al Fox, who lost to Kathy Castor two years ago in a bid to replace Jim Davis for Congress in Tampa, rejects the U.S. foreign policy establishment mindset in penalizing Cuba with the embargo and the Bush Administration’s 2004 policy on limiting family visits to Cuba by Cuban Americans from once a year to once every 3 years.

In his letter released today, Fidel Castro said he would not remain president but would continue to comment on events in Cuba: “I shall continue to write under the title 'Reflections of Comrade Fidel.’ It will be another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard."

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