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Cuba at a Crossroads

Does Fidel Castro's decision to step down after half a century in power open the door to real change for Cuba?

By James McKinley Jr. in Havana

When Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, John McCain had recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, Hillary Clinton was an 11-year-old Girl Scout, and Barack Obama hadn't been born yet.

So when Castro stepped down on February 19—after outlasting nine U.S. Presidents—it clearly marked a turning point for Cuba. The question is: What, if anything, will change? Poor health is what finally prompted Castro, 81, to step aside. Five days later, Raúl Castro, 76, formally assumed the presidency from his brother.

Raúl had been acting President since July 2006, when Fidel underwent emergency surgery and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother. But Fidel remained active in running the government from behind the scenes.

In a speech to the National Assembly following his selection, Raúl made it clear that he would make no radical changes and promised to consult his brother on every important decision. He said Fidel "is irreplaceable, and the people will continue his work even though he is not physically here."

But Cuba's new President also says that the government needs to change to survive in the new era. He has talked about possibly working to improve relations with the U.S. And days after Raúl officially took over, Cuba signed two important international human-rights treaties that Fidel had long opposed—the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. (Whether they'll be observed is anyone's guess.)

After decades of political repression and a moribund economy that has left most Cubans in poverty, many are skeptical of their new leader's ability to bring about real change. They are waiting for Raúl to do something concrete to improve their lives, like raising salaries. "I am not expecting a father, omnipresent and omnipotent, but a President, [about] whom I can complain, freely, in public," wrote Yoani Sánchez, a political blogger in Cuba.

The Revolution

Cuba and its 11 million people have been under Fidel Castro's control since Jan. 1, 1959, when he and a band of guerrillas overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At the time, Castro promised to restore the Cuban Constitution and hold elections. Instead, at the height of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Communist powers, he aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union, embracing its repressive political policies, state-run economic model, and hostility toward the U.S.—which feared that Cuba would serve as a beachhead for Communist expansion in the Americas. Castro also nationalized, without compensation, all American businesses in Cuba. In response, Washington imposed a trade embargo that is still in effect. (See Debate)

On April 17, 1961, 1,500 Cuban exiles backed by the U.S. and trained by the C.I.A. landed at the Bay of Pigs in a doomed attempt to overthrow Castro. Within three days, most of the exiles were dead or captured.

In 1962, the Soviets deployed missiles in Cuba—which is just 90 miles off the coast of Florida—and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. After an American naval blockade of Cuba and 13 days of tense negotiations, the missiles were withdrawn.

Soviet aid kept Cuba's economy afloat until the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba went into an economic free fall.

Digital Resistance

Fidel Castro has long blamed the U.S. embargo for his country's economic woes. And while he has been credited with progress in education and health care, his government's repressive policies have routinely violated human rights.

Many older Cubans who remember life under the pre-1959 dictatorship do feel that Fidel Castro improved their lives to some extent. But 70 percent of Cuba's population today was born after the revolution. Many came of age during the 1990s, when the economy was collapsing; they have known mostly poverty and repression.

While the government has long limited the public's access to the Internet and digital videos, a growing network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras, and secret Internet hookups has been spreading news the government tries to suppress. University students recently challenged the president of the National Assembly over travel restrictions, the economy, and the lack of free elections.

Some experts say that Raúl Castro may be willing to open up Cuba's economy the way China and Vietnam have done with such great success—allowing elements of a free market to develop while the Communist Party maintains strict political control.

Unlike Fidel, who wanted to manage every detail of government himself, Raúl is willing to delegate authority. He has even encouraged a measure of public debate about government programs—something his brother rarely allowed.

Raúl has brought up issues that his brother never addressed, criticizing farmers for being inefficient and denouncing the high price of milk. He has acknowledged that government salaries—averaging $19 a month—do not meet the minimum needs of a family, and he has bought hundreds of buses from China to try to improve Cuba's crumbling public transportation network.

U.S. Reaction

Raúl Castro's biggest challenge will be revamping Cuba's economy, and he has said that the government needs to be streamlined. But so far, his appointees are from the old guard, mostly men in their 70s. This has disappointed Cubans who had hoped a younger generation of leaders might rise.

Washington is watching and waiting to see what will happen under Cuba's new leadership. President George W. Bush—the 10th U.S. President to cross swords with Fidel Castro—welcomed his resignation. But Bush opposes easing economic sanctions or restrictions on travel to Cuba without the country's transition to democracy.

John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, says the U.S. must keep sanctions on Cuba until it allows free elections and releases political prisoners. Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say they might lift the embargo if Cuba moves toward democracy.

There are about 1.4 million Cuban-Americans in the U.S. Many fled Cuba at great risk, crossing to Florida on the flimsiest of boats. Miami today has more than 760,000 Cuban-Americans—a politically powerful community that produced the country's first Cuban-American Senator, Mel Martinez, who was elected in 2004.

Reaction in Florida to Cuba's leadership change has been mixed. Some say that it means nothing and that Raúl will continue Fidel's hard-line policies. Others maintain that it represents an important political shift.

"It's not the be-all and end-all, but it marks a turning point," says Joe Garcia, a Democratic candidate for Congress and the former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. "There's no question that the Cuban revolution is nearing its conclusion."