Cuba: Fidel declines to stand for president

February 22, 2008

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 overturned capitalism.

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 the 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 the world.

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 economy.

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 profit.

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 younger.

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 retires".

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