RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

An announcement that Fidel Castro's opponents have been awaiting for years came in the middle of the night. The Cuban president is 81. He's been in charge of Cuba for most of his life. He hasn't been seen in public since he provisionally turned over his powers to his brother Raul in July 2006 after he fell ill. And today, Castro announced he is stepping down as president and commander-in-chief.

NPR's Tom Gjelten joins us now. Tom, why now?

TOM GJELTEN: Steve, the reason now - it's not entirely a surprise - this weekend the national assembly, Cuba's parliament, was going to meet. And its big order of business was it was going to elect a new president. Now, Fidel was in position to be the new president. He is a member of parliament, he was officially elected to be a member of parliament.

So we were going to see this weekend whether he would be elected or accept a new term as Cuba's president. He hinted in December that he may not, because he said then that he would not cling to power indefinitely, and he suggested he would leave the way open for new leadership.

We now get the official confirmation. He says in this letter that was published in the online edition of Granma, the official Cuban communist party newspaper, this morning, he said he would neither aspire to nor would he accept another term as president.

INSKEEP: Now, I have to ask how big a difference this makes since he has been out of the public eye for a couple of years.

GJELTEN: He has been out of the public view since July of 2006, when he handed over power provisionally to Raul Castro, his brother, as you said. And throughout that time, he really hasn't been involved in day-to-day policies, day-to-day administration of the government.

So from that point of view, it doesn't make a huge difference. One other thing to keep in mind, Steve, is that Fidel Castro's power does not really derive from him holding any position in particular. You know, he was not Cuba's president in the beginning when he took power in January of 1959. He was not Cuba's prime minister. Those positions were held by other people.

It was several months down the road before he adopted those formal leadership positions. It didn't make any difference 'cause he was the guy in power anyway.

INSKEEP: He was the hero.

GJELTEN: He was the hero. He had all the power regardless of what title he held. That continued to be the case. So the fact that he stepped down as president or commander-in-chief wouldn't necessarily make a big difference. Notice he not resign as first secretary of the communist party.

But still, this is a historic moment for Cuba. It will now leave Raul Castro, presumably - his brother - as the president, and he will for the first time really be free to exercise the authority that position should hold.

INSKEEP: When we say that he was a hero, we should remember this is a guy who is a revolutionary leader, helped to overthrow a dictator, that's what made him a hero to many Cubans. Is it safe to say, though, all these decades later, that he still has that same image among Cubans?

GJELTEN: Well, the majority of Cubans today weren't even alive when Fidel Castro came to power. Cubans are a very weary people. You know, I think it's fair to say he still has a certain amount of respect and authority. But life in Cuba is so hard and so many Cubans are so anxious for some kind of change that I think this will be seen as a sign of something positive.

INSKEEP: And when or where could we expect to begin to see some changes?

GJELTEN: Well, the interesting thing is that even though Raul has been acting president, he has found his authority undercut by Fidel on many occasions in the last year and a half. He has, for example, called on occasion for better relations with the United States only to have a letter appear from Fidel in the paper a few days later saying it wasn't the time for a better relations with the United States.

Raul has promoted ethanol as promising for Cuba's future only to have Fidel write a letter to the editor of the newspaper saying it wasn't. So we'll now see Raul finally able to make some changes and presumably not be undercut by Fidel.

INSKEEP: Changes that it sounds like some in the United States might welcome.

GJELTEN: Well, there will be marginal changes. He'll, I think, open up the Cuban economy to some extent. But, again, Steve, Fidel will be lurking in the background. He said in this letter he's still going to be there. As long as Fidel is alive, he's still going to be a powerful force in Cuba. That's the thing to keep in mind.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten has covered Cuba for many years. Tom, thanks for coming in this morning.

GJELTEN: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: And, again, the news: Fidel Castro has announced that he is not going to seek another term as Cuba's president. Although, as Tom notes, he'll still be around. To read about Castro's nearly 50-year rule and how various American presidents have tried to deal with him, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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