- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MIAMI — Celebrants gathered in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood yesterday morning to hail Fidel Castro’s retirement, waving Cuban flags to a soundtrack of honking car horns.

Crowds were small, consisting mainly of elderly Cubans who fled the island years ago and now spend their days sipping espresso-like “cafe Cubano” and sharing memories of their homeland.

Standing in rain with signs denouncing the 49-year-old Castro regime, they expressed guarded optimism about Mr. Castro’s decision to relinquish power, uncertain that reforms in Cuba would follow under Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s 76-year-old younger brother and almost-certain successor.

“I’m happy about an end to almost 50 years of repression under Fidel,” said Jose Plancia, 73, who left the island in 1968. “However, I don’t see any real change.”

“Raul does not have the same power as Fidel,” he said.

Video: Little Havana reacts: Goodbye to ‘tyrant’

Scenes from the streets of Miami. (Video by Carmen Gentile)

News of the ailing Fidel Castro’s decision to formally step down reached Cubans here in the wee hours of the morning when an announcement by Mr. Castro himself was published in Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma.

Bush administration officials said there is little prospect of an immediate change in U.S. policy or an easing of the economic embargo and travel bans to Cuba.

Although quick changes in U.S. policy were unlikely, the leading Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, key lawmakers on Capitol Hill and human rights groups all weighed in on the news.

With Florida’s Cuban-Americans a key constituency in a critical swing state, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said he would favor easing the embargo, but only with real political change in Cuba.

Mr. Castro’s resignation “is an essential first step, but it is sadly insufficient in bringing freedom to Cuba,” Mr. Obama said.

Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, told voters in Ohio that if she were president she would “push Cuba now to join the community of nations and become a democracy.”

Mrs. Clinton promised to “engage our partners in Latin America and Europe who have a strong stake in seeing a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, and who want very much for the United States to play a constructive role to that end.”

Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Cuban democracy was “inevitable,” but said U.S. pressure for change should continue.

“Freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand, and the Castro brothers clearly intend to maintain their grip on power,” Mr. McCain said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the U.S. embargo but also cautioned that the Cuban regime had not automatically changed with the retirement of its founder.

“Even if Castro no longer calls the shots, the repressive machinery he constructed over almost half a century remains fully intact,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the human rights group’s Americas director. “Until that changes, it’s unlikely there will be any real progress on human rights in Cuba.”

Staff writers S.A. Miller and David R. Sands contributed to this article.


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