Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cuba: Mixed reaction to Castro's departure

Reaction from around the world to the retirement of Cuban President Fidel Castro has been mixed and cautious. From Washington, VOA's Michael Bowman reports.

Fidel Castro's retirement formally ends the rule of the world's longest-serving leader. But it is hardly unexpected; the 81-year-old Mr. Castro has not been seen in public for more than a year and a half, and he recently wrote that he would not "cling to power."

For more than four decades, U.S. policy has stood in opposition to Mr. Castro's communist rule. Yet there was no hint of triumphant jubilation in President Bush's voice as he reacted to news that the long-standing U.S. nemesis is stepping down.

Mr. Bush seemed focused on Cuba's road ahead as he spoke during a visit to Rwanda. "I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of democratic transition," he said. "The first step, of course, will be for people [Cuban dissidents] put in these prisons to be let out."

The president added that the political transition in Cuba should lead to genuinely free and fair elections.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was asked if the end of Fidel Castro's rule would prompt an end to the decades-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba. Mr. Negroponte said he cannot imagine that happening anytime soon.

Elsewhere, a European Union spokesman John Clancy is quoted as saying the bloc will encourage a peaceful transition to pluralistic democracy in Cuba, and is willing to engage with Cuba in constructive dialogue to that end.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen says Fidel Castro will not be missed, while Sweden's foreign minister Carl Bildt says Mr. Castro's departure marks the end of an era that began with freedom and ended with oppression.

But a spokesman for Vietnam's foreign ministry praised Mr. Castro as a great friend, comrade, and very close brother, while the leader of Russia's Communist Party hailed him as a fantastic political leader who hosted high the flag of freedom.

Mr. Castro's younger brother, Raul, temporarily took the reins of power in 2006 when the elder Castro underwent emergency gastrointestinal surgery, and many Cuba-watchers expect Raul Castro will succeed his brother as president.

Spanish foreign ministry officials are quoted as saying they believe Raul's ascension to power will allow him to undertake reforms on the island. Raul Castro has spoken of economic liberalization and pursuing a possible thaw in relations with the United States.

Some dissidents in Cuba appear cautiously optimistic about the future. Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo, a former Cuban exile, says he has hope that economic and political change can be accomplished without destabilization.

The dissident says that any change in Cuba will be positive, mainly if people understand that democracy comes from diversity.

By Michael Bowman Washington, 19 February 2008
Published with the permission of Voice of America