On the morning of February 19, without fanfare, Cuban media released a statement from President Fidel Castro stating that he would decline to stand for re-election to the presidency.
On February 24, Cuba's newly elected 614-member National Assembly
will convene and elect from among its deputies the Council of State,
including the president and vice-president. All of these positions are
recallable by popular plebiscite.
In declining nomination, the 81-year-old Fidel explained, "it would
be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more
mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer".
Fidel had temporarily handed over power to the first vice-president,
his brother Raul Castro, in July 2006 in order to undergo intestinal
surgery. Fidel had been president of the small island since 1976, having
led the revolution that overthrew US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista
in 1959, subsequently carrying out a socialist revolution that
The island had been dominated by US corporations and was the playground of the US rich.
To many in the West, the news marks the end of an era — the exit of
the last "Cold Warrior". This obscures another reality — that Cuba remains a
symbol of hope for much of the world's poor.
Cuba is a symbol both of successful anti-colonial revolution and
international solidarity. Not only has the revolution brought
significant gains to the Cuban people, such as free health care and
education — securing a lower infant mortality rate and more doctors per
head of population than the US — but it exports its gains, with Cuban
doctors providing free health care to the poor in 68 countries around
Thousands of foreign students — including from the US — study free of charge at Cuban universities.
Cuba has initiated, along with Venezuela, "Mission Miracle", a joint
program that provides free eye operations to the sight-impaired that has
restored the eyesight of over a million people from across the
Americas, including the US.
In the late 1980s, over 10% of Cuba's national expenditure was on aid
to Africa. Cuba sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to resist the
military invasion of Angola by Apartheid South Africa. South Africa's
defeat in that war was a crucial factor in Apartheid's downfall, as
Nelson Mandela has gratefully acknowledged.
In recent years, Cuba has also registered significant achievements in
reversing environmental destruction, reforesting 25% of the country.
Cuban agriculture is over 95% organic and the World Wide Fund for Nature
has declared Cuba as the only country in the world with a sustainable
All these achievements are possible because Cuba broke the hold over
its economy and political system of powerful corporations, and has an
economy planned according to the principle of human need not private
Cuba remains a symbol that another, better world is possible — made
all the more powerful for the fact that these achievements have been
made despite a 48-year long economic blockade maintained by the US
against it. Fidel himself is a powerful symbol for his role in leading
this process — a fact not missed by the US government, with over 600
documented assassination attempts carried out against him by the CIA.
It is no surprise that the flurry of articles in the corporate media
caused by Castro's announcement were full of references to his supposed
"dictatorship". Corporate interests are pining for the restoration of
capitalism, and hoping that Fidel's stepping back might open the way.
The response from within Cuba was far more measured. The revolution
has never been about an individual, and the Cuban leadership is much
broader than the corporate-owned media would have us believe.
While Raul is most likely to be elected as president, he will preside
over a National Assembly where a record number of young people were
recently elected. Other candidates for president, either immediately or
in the near future, include current foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque
and head of the Council of State Carlos Lage — both a generation
Since the middle of last year, Cuba has been engaged in an open,
far-reaching debate about the future of the revolution, holding over
200,000 public meetings and receiving over 1.3 million proposals from
ordinary citizens. Juventud Rebelde, the paper of the Cuban
Communist Party's (CCP) youth organisation, has been leading the
campaign against corruption, bureaucracy and political inertia.
While the Western media have reported Fidel's decision not to stand
for election as president as him "retiring", this is far from the case.
He remains an elected member of the National Assembly and first
secretary of the CCP.
Fidel's statement ends: "This is not my farewell to you. My only wish
is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to
write under the heading of 'Reflections by comrade Fidel'. It will be
just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard."
As left-wing Welsh rock band the Manic Street Preachers once sung in
reference to Fidel, "You don't sit in a rocking chair, when you've made a
revolution". Or, as Fidel himself has put it, "A revolutionary never
First published in Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2008