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Fidel Castro: Haven't called shots for years

 

Amid successor talk, a claim many find hard to believe.

 

Paul Haven, The Associated Press

 

HAVANA - Fidel Castro's surprise announcement that he stepped down as head of the Communist Party five years ago - despite the widespread belief that he remained in charge - marks the bizarre end of an era for a nation and a man whose fates have been intertwined for more than half a century.

 

The 84-year-old revolutionary icon made the revelation Tuesday - with word of the resignation thrown in as an aside halfway through an opinion piece that otherwise focused on President Obama.

 

The declaration raises fundamental questions about just how much power Fidel has been wielding behind the scenes since his 2006 illness, and to what extent his 79-year-old brother Raul has had freedom to make decisions as he pushed the country to enact sweeping economic reforms.

 

It also gives the Castros an opportunity to tap a possible successor with their naming of a new party No. 2 - one without their famous last name.

 

They might select from a cadre of younger leaders who could carry the fiscal changes forward, and perhaps even reboot relations with the United States. Alternatively, the brothers could look to the past by promoting a loyal-but-weathered veteran of the revolution that brought them to power in 1959.

 

The answer will likely become apparent through a high-level game of musical chairs that Fidel's departure will engender in the upper reaches of the Communist Party hierarchy during a crucial Communist Party Congress next month.

 

In Tuesday's opinion piece, Castro said that when he got sick in 2006, "I resigned without hesitation from my state and political positions, including first secretary of the party . . . and I never tried to exercise those roles again."

 

The article, published on the state-run Cubadebate website overnight and in newspapers Tuesday morning, caught many by surprise.

 

"It's incredible. Nobody can believe it," said Magaly Delgado, a 72-year-old Havana retiree who was clutching a copy of Granma, the Communist Party daily. "I always thought he was still in charge. . . . He never said he had resigned."

 

In a proclamation July 31, 2006, Fidel had provisionally delegated most of his official duties to his brother - including the presidency and leadership of the party.

 

In February 2008 he announced he was officially stepping down as president, and Raul Castro was picked to succeed him by the parliament a few days later. But no reference was made to Fidel's leaving his party post, and Cuban officials and ordinary people have referred to him as the party leader ever since.

 

It is widely expected that Raul will formally be named to the top party spot at the April congress, and analysts say the choice of second secretary, the post Raul now holds, will say a lot about how the brothers envision the transition to a post-Castro era.

 

"They could send a startling message by picking somebody young or out of the party, or somebody whose name is not easily recognized," said Robert Pastor, a professor at American University and longtime adviser on hemispheric affairs.

 

In practice, no major government policy can be passed without party agreement.

 

There is a scattering of young leaders, including Lazaro Exposito, the fast-charging party chief in Santiago de Cuba, Lazara Lopez Acea, the 47-year-old top party leader for Havana, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, 53, and Economy Minister Marino Murillo, 50.

 

But neither Castro has ever indicated publicly that one is favored over the others.

 

The safest choice for the No. 2 party spot would probably be First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 80, a disciplinarian of unquestioned loyalty who has been with the Castros since their guerrilla days in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

 

A congressional staffer involved in U.S.-Cuba relations said Fidel's official departure from the party will not lead, at least in the short term, to improved relations.

 

"His stepping down will be a watershed on the island, for sure, and it will be seen as such by most in Washington," he said. "But some people will still say Fidel is calling the shots, whether or not it is really the truth anymore."