MIAMI — Cuban leader Fidel Castro's decision to step down as head of state after nearly half a century could signal the passing of power to a new generation and fresh hope for the island nation through economic reforms.
Tuesday's resignation letter, which includes candid disclosures about his flagging health, was an unequivocal indication that the 81-year-old revolutionary is choreographing his own succession and leaving on his own terms. Castro, who has run Cuba for 49 years, ranks as the world's longest-ruling head of state outside of monarchs.
He will remain first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party and a member of parliament and is likely to continue to serve in an advisory role behind the scenes.
Officials in Washington said there were no immediate plans to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, including its trade embargo. In Miami's large exile community, reaction was subdued.
Castro's 76-year-old brother, Raul, who began leading the country when Fidel fell ill and temporarily ceded power to him 19 months ago, has widely been considered the likely next head of state. Raul is the constitutionally designated successor to his brother by virtue of his No. 2 position in the party hierarchy.
But the elder Castro recently has indicated that he may favor a younger, more energetic person to succeed him. He has hinted that someone else might emerge Sunday when the newly elected National Assembly convenes to propose a new executive body, the 31-member Council of State.
"He's catching up to me in years, so it's also a generational problem," Castro says of Raul in his autobiography, "Fidel Castro: My Life," released in English this year by Scribner.
Speculation about who may become president, if not Raul, has centered on Vice President Carlos Lage, a 56-year-old physician by training who has been representing Cuba at international events in Castro's absence.
Lage designed and implemented a slate of modest economic reforms in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and billions of dollars in annual subsidies to Cuba stopped overnight. Those changes allowed thousands of Cubans to open small private businesses, many catering to foreign visitors and giving rise to the first tourism boom on the island under communist rule.
In addition to Castro and Lage, others mentioned as possible heads of state are Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who at 42 is the only senior Cuban official born after Castro came to power, and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, 70, who has remained active and visible in the nation's affairs during Castro's absence.
Castro has made no secret of his distaste for the changes that put dollars in the hands of some Cubans while leaving the majority with the inconvertible peso, which isn't accepted at hard-currency stores selling imported food and consumer goods.
Nevertheless, Castro's brother and other Cuban officials have continued to discuss the need for structural changes to improve living standards. They have encouraged Cubans to speak out about the current system's shortcomings and to propose ideas for strengthening the country of more than 11 million people.
Today the revolution's supporters point to the country's free and universal education and healthcare, while critics say the country suffered a loss of personal liberties and material well-being.
In South Florida, where 800,000 Cuban Americans live and dominate the political and economic scenes, about 100 people gathered along Little Havana's Calle Ocho in Miami to wave placards denouncing Castro. Several members of the exile community dismissed Castro's announcement as relatively meaningless as long as he's alive and influencing Cuban life.
In his resignation letter, posted about 3 a.m. on the website of the Communist Party daily Granma, Castro reminded Cubans of comments he made to a television moderator in a December letter that he said were intended to prepare the nation for his retirement.
"My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, much less to stand in the way of younger persons, but rather to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional era in which I lived," he cited from his earlier note to viewers of the nightly "Round Table" political discussion show.
Cuba scholars describe Castro's carefully managed withdrawal as evidence that gradual change is on the horizon for the island, whether or not U.S. policy is revised to promote that change.
"What we will see in agriculture and in small businesses that are now state-run is a redefinition of property rights," said Julia Sweig, a Cuban revolution historian and senior fellow for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you look over the last few years, even before Fidel got sick, you see they've been talking about the need to get the state out of the way" to allow farmers and small entrepreneurs to fill the production void.