It came in the middle of the night, not a stealth attack but a stealth retreat: News from Havana that Fidel Castro officially was giving up the reins of power, power he has held in Cuba with an iron grip while 10 presidents have lived in the White House.
Castro arguably has been a bigger problem for Washington policymakers than any other leader in the past half-century. His actual demise has been wished for, plotted for and dreamed of almost as long as Castro's been in power. Of course the Soviets and later the Russians posed a bigger threat, but the closest the United States has come to nuclear confrontation with them was in 1962, over Soviet missiles based in Cuba.
The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 was President John Kennedy's biggest gaffe. Castro's communist government and persistent anti-American rhetoric perplexed American policymakers and politicians decade after decade. He never wavered in his uncanny ability to poke a stick at whatever administration happened to be in power.
"It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer," Castro wrote in the newspaper Granma. Although technically able to lay claim to a senior position, Castro thus told his people and the world his age and medical condition prevented him from doing so.
Of course, given the comparative power equation between Washington and Havana, he couldn't be much more than a nuisance, but Fidel certainly was that. Florida's political landscape was altered by refugees who fled his brutal anti-democratic regime and settled in the Sunshine State, and they made certain Washington knew it could be politically damaging if U.S. policy was anything other than hard line anti-Castro.
The deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte, told reporters he doubted if America's four decade-long embargo against Cuba would be ended as Castro stepped aside. After all, power now officially goes to his younger brother, Raul. Although he has shown a penchant for more economic openness, not much is expected to change under Raul Castro, especially since the Bush administration will need to see more change toward democracy than Washington expects in the remaining months of this administration.
In Africa when the news came, President Bush said, "The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty." Then he called for the release of political prisoners and other reforms which there is no reason to believe will be forthcoming, at least in the near term.
Although his age (81) and poor health forced him to remove himself from active participation in public life, Fidel Castro's own words are still instructive. "This is not my farewell to you," he writes to his countrymen. "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. I shall be careful."
Perhaps more gentle than his normal style, but still another jab, just to let friend and foe alike know that Fidel, indeed, has not yet said his final "Farewell."