Castro steps down, EU reacts
The EU Commission stressed its willingness to engage in "a constructive political dialogue" with Cuba.
PARIS, February 20, 2008 - The United States said Fidel Castro's decision
to step down should spur democratic change, while Russia's Communists led
praise for a "brave" leader, as the news from Cuba on Tuesday evoked memories
of the Cold War.
US President George W. Bush said Castro's retirement should open the door
for democratic reform on the communist island, but a top US diplomat said
Washington's decades-old embargo was not likely to end soon.
The 81-year-old Cuban president, who has been a thorn in Washington's side
for almost half a century, said in a message published Tuesday he would not
seek the presidency again when it is decided later this month.
Bush, the latest in a long line of US presidents seeking to pressure
Castro's regime, echoed many Western leaders when he said the move should
begin a "democratic transition" on the communist island.
"It should be a beginning of the democratic transition for the people in
Cuba," Bush said in Rwanda, where he is on an Africa tour.
However, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte cut short any
speculation that an end to the US embargo imposed in 1962 could be imminent,
telling reporters: "I don't imagine that happening anytime soon."
Other opponents of the Cuban regime, rights defenders and Cuban dissidents
abroad were skeptical that Castro's move marked a brighter future, underlining
that he will maintain a strong influence.
In Moscow, the leader of Cuba's historic ally, Russia's Communist Party,
hailed the move by Castro, who has been in seclusion for 19 months due to
illness and has been temporarily replaced by his brother Raul.
"It's a brave decision and in taking it I'm sure Fidel Castro was guided by
the interests of his country and his people," said Gennady Zyuganov, quoted by
Interfax news agency.
Castro's liaison with the Soviet Union took the world to the edge of
nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, sparked when Moscow sought to
position nuclear missiles on the island facing Florida.
Communist ally China referred to Castro as a "friend" while Vietnam hailed
him as a "brother" and "comrade."
"He is an old friend of the Chinese people. China wishes him a speedy
recovery," the foreign ministry said in Beijing.
Brazil's leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva hailed Castro as a
"living legend" and said his decision "will be good for Cuba".
Two European anti-communist icons stressed that Castro's decision to step
aside should be the beginning of democratic reform on the island.
Ex-Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel said he hoped it "will be a first
step toward democracy". But former Polish president Lech Walesa said communism
was "still well in place" in Cuba, and criticised Castro's slow handover of
The Cuban president did not name a possible successor, although most
analysts believe his 76-year-old brother Raul is the obvious choice.
Spain led a chorus of European hopes for a Cuban transition to democracy.
"Now Raul Castro will be able to take on his reform project with a greater
capacity, toughness and confidence," said the minister responsible for Latin
America, Trinidad Jimenez.
Spain and its former colony held talks on human rights in Madrid last week,
after which Havana agreed to release seven political prisoners.
Some of the 27 EU member states, led by Spain which normalised its
relations with Havana last year, are in favour of definitively dropping their
sanctions on Cuba, which were introduced in 2003 but suspended two years later.
But others, including Britain and the Czech Republic, believe normalisation
should not take place without democratic reforms.
"The Cuban people will now be looking to the future, a future which we hope
will offer them political progress founded on democracy and human rights,"
said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
Italy's Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema expressed hope that the move would
lead to "a transitional phase toward democracy".
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon snubbed the communist icon, telling
reporters in Strasbourg: "I have never had admiration for dictators regardless
of who they are and it's not because some were dictators longer than others
that they merit more admiration on our part."
The EU Commission stressed its willingness to engage in "a constructive
political dialogue" with Cuba.
EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel will go ahead with a scheduled
visit to Havana on March 6-7, his spokesman said in Brussels, although it has
not been decided whether he will meet Castro.
London-based rights group Amnesty International called for the release of
political prisoners and reforms to guarantee human rights.
Enrique Gutierrez, head of the Spanish Federation of Cuban Associations,
which groups Cuban dissidents based in Spain, said the Cuban regime is now
"dead with Fidel Castro."
"There are now two possibilities, either there will be change straight from
Raul Castro or it will come from within Cuban society which will put pressure
on the regime," he told AFP.