Fidel Castro Leaves Post As Cuban President

HAVANA (AP) — Fidel Castro is stepping down as Cuba’s president after nearly 50 years in power.

In a letter appearing in official state media, Castro says he won’t accept a new term when the new parliament meets on Sunday.

The 81-year-old also writes that his wishes have always been to serve until his “last breath,” but that it would be – in his words – “a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer.”

Castro temporarily handed over power to his 76-year-old brother, Raul, in July of 2006 when he announced that he underwent intestinal surgery. Since then, he’s been seen only in photos and videotape.

Raul will likely take over full control of his brother’s presidential responsibilities.

Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959 and reshaped Cuba into a communist state. Except for monarchs, Castro is the world’s longest ruling head of state.

Though he’s resigning his presidential post, Castro will remain a member of the Cuban parliament and is likely to be elected to the 31-member Council of State on Sunday.

Cuban exiles in Miami were welcoming news that Fidel Castro is stepping down, but they’re not expecting things to change much on the island.

One man says Cubans have been “waiting for this news a long time,” but that they’ll have to wait and see if there are any changes.

Another man says any changes would have to come from within Cuba’s military. He says Castro may have stepped down, but that he has a “bunch of auxiliary gang members who don’t want to see change.”

One expert says the situation in Cuba will simply be a “continuation with a different face.”

Any celebrations so far have been calm, with handfuls of people gathering around the city. That’s a stark contrast to the thousands who took to the streets in 2006 when Castro temporarily handed power over to his brother.

President Bush said Tuesday that he hopes Fidel Castro’s resignation will mark the start of a democratic transition in Cuba.

During a news conference in Rwanda, Bush said the international community needs to work with the Cuban people to build institutions needed for democracy.

He says a transition to new leadership in Cuba ought to result in free and fair elections, not ones he calls “staged.”

Bush says the U.S. wants to help the Cuban people “realize the blessings of liberty.”

The leading U.S. presidential candidates, meanwhile, have used Fidel Castro’s announcement as a call for Cuba to release its political prisoners.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton says the U.S. should seek ways to encourage democratic reforms in Cuba now that Fidel Castro has resigned.

Speaking in a diner in Ohio, Clinton says the U.S. needs a president that will work to gather international support in pushing Cuba to become a democracy. Clinton says she would do so as president.

Clinton is also joining rival Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain in the call for political prisoners in Cuba to be released.

Obama also called for the U.S. to get ready to ease the five-decade-old trade embargo if Cuba’s leaders start moving toward democracy.

And McCain says even though Castro has stepped down, “freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand.” He says the U.S. must push for Cuba to hold internationally monitored elections, and to legalize all political parties, labor unions and free media.