BY FRANCES ROBLES AND
The Bush administration ruled out on Tuesday any immediate change in policy toward Cuba, deriding Fidel Castro's most likely successor as president of Cuba, his brother Raúl, as ``Fidel-lite.''
''He is simply a continuation of the Castro regime, of the dictatorship,'' State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters, according to the Associated Press. ``There are some very clear indications out there that what this transition would potentially become . . . is a transfer of authority and power from one dictator to dictator-lite, from Fidel to Raúl.''
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said in Washington he could not even imagine the U.S. lifting the embargo ''any time soon''. The trade embargo against the island has been the centerpiece of American policy toward Cuba since it was first imposed in 1960 and strengthened in 1962.
Cubans on the island, on the other hand, hoped Fidel's decision not to seek reelection may be just the break Raúl had been waiting for to make significant changes in the economy.
''I don't think it will be more of the same,'' dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said by phone from Havana. ``It's not what we in Cuba want -- we want democracy and freedom -- but this could be the time for some economic changes and maybe, long-term, some political changes.''
Although Raúl has been ruling Cuba for the 19 months that Castro has been ailing, Cuba watchers say he's had his hands tied with the looming presence of his brother. And with Tuesday's announcement that Cuba's 81-year-old leader was stepping down after nearly 50 years in office, Raúl could use the opportunity to enact economic reforms that Cubans so desperately crave.
Castro announced in a letter to the Cuban people Tuesday that his health will not allow him to accept another term as president of the ruling Council of State. His move came five days before the National Assembly meets to elect the new Council of State and its president -- Castro's top official title since the council was established in 1976.
In his letter, Fidel acknowledged that his failing health means he was not up to the job.
''My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath,'' Castro wrote in a letter published in Tuesday's editions of Cuban newspapers. However, ``it would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer.''
''This I say devoid of all drama,'' he wrote.
At Miami International Airport, scores of passengers arriving on flights from Camagüey and Havana Tuesday said they saw nothing different on the streets or at the airport and were unaware of the significant development on the island when they arrived in Miami in the early afternoon. Most learned the news from reporters gathered outside the U.S. Customs waiting area at MIA.
''Everything seemed normal. There was nothing different as we headed for the airport. It looked like a normal day in Cuba,'' said María Luisa Morales, 60, of West Palm Beach, who spent three weeks visiting relatives in Camagüey in central Cuba.
''I don't think people know,'' Morales said.
Rafael Almeida, 45, a trucker from Hialeah who was on the same flight, was stunned to hear of Castro's resignation.
''Really? They didn't say anything there. I noticed nothing different at the airport. Are you sure?,'' Almeida queried reporters.
The Associated Press reported that, as radio spread the news across the island, Cubans went about their business as usual, accepting the inevitable with a mix of sadness and hope.
''It is like losing a father,'' said Luis Conte, an elderly museum watchman. Or ``like a marriage -- a very long one that is over.''
Reaction was subdued in Miami's Cuban-American community. Most exiles dismissed Castro's resignation as an insignificant development.
''That's nothing, that's a farce,'' said Jorge Alonso, 79, who was watching other men play poker at Calle Oche's Domino Park on Tuesday. ``With Raúl, there is no solution.''
Miami's arch-conservative Radio Mambí, the Spanish language anti-Castro station, hit on the same skeptical notes they've preached the last two years: This does not represent real change.
News Director Armando Pérez-Roura said Castro's move was a ''pantomime'' typical of ``communists.''
''This is not a change,'' he said in Spanish. ``It's a play by the Cuban government with the help of the European Union and [Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero.''
Castro remains a member of parliament and is likely to be elected to the 31-member Council of State on Sunday, though he will no longer be its president. Castro also retains his powerful post as first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party.
Although there was no indication that the resignation could trigger a mass migration headed for Miami, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said the county was prepared for any unexpected event.
''Earlier today, I spoke with Gov. Charlie Crist to assure him that Miami-Dade County is prepared for any issues that may arise. As always, we'll continue to monitor the activities of the Cuban government, which are of great interest to our community,'' he said.
Most Cubans believe that the presidency will wind up in the hands of Raúl, the world's longest-serving defense minister. As head of the armed forces, he wields tremendous power not just over troops, but State Security, the Ministry of Interior and the economy.
''This is Raúl's opportunity to consolidate power,'' Espinosa said.
Laura Pollán, a member of the dissident group Ladies in White, said this is Raúl's chance to prove that he is really interested in reform by freeing the more than 200 political prisoners in Cuba. Pollán's husband, Héctor Maseda, is serving a 20-year sentence.
In Africa, a visiting President Bush said he hoped this was the beginning of democracy and called for the liberation of all political prisoners in Cuba.
''First step, of course, will be for people put in these prisons to be let out. I've met with many of the -- or some of the families of prisoners. It just breaks your heart to realize that people have been thrown in prison because they dared speak out,'' he said.
``I view this as a period of transition; that -- and it should be the beginning of the democratic transition for the people in Cuba.'''
On the presidential campaign trail, Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican John McCain also demanded the release of political prisoners in Cuba.
It remains to be seen whether the 76-year-old Raúl will be elected as the new president, although Castro is widely expected to retain a strong voice in the country's strategic decisions for the time being.
Raúl also may opt to wield power from his current positions and allow the Council of State to choose a younger leader, like the ones Castro alluded to in Tuesday's letter.
''Fortunately, our revolution can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the process,'' he wrote. ``Some were very young, almost children, when they joined the fight in the mountains and later they have given glory to the country with their heroic performance and their internationalist missions. . . . They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement.''
But his absence from the political scene raises many new possibilities for the revolution, particularly considering that nearly two-thirds of the country's 11.2 million people were born after 1959 and have known no other leader but Fidel.
Castro's successor also will take office amid increasing complaints about the system's shortcomings, particularly high prices and low wages.
When Castro was struck by an intestinal illness in summer 2006, he ''temporarily'' turned over the title of president and several others to Raúl. Castro has not made any public appearances since then.
The jubilation felt on the streets of Miami that summer night that Castro ceded power quickly petered out when Raúl's hold on the job proved firmer than exiles in Miami expected. Raúl's 19 months in office were marked by remarkable stability, which served to underscore the strength of Cuba's military and Communist Party.
Castro began hinting late last year that he did not plan to hold on to his job forever. In a December column, he suggested it was time to make way for newer and younger leadership.
Some experts believe the Council of State will tap Vice President Carlos Lage, 54, as president. But others say it's unlikely both Castro brothers will retire at once. Many on the island think Lage will actually succeed Raúl as Cuba's next No. 2.
The Castro brothers swept into power in 1959 after winning a guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista. Once in office, Fidel, a former lawyer, nationalized properties as the country's elite and middle class fled. He fostered strong ties to the Soviet Union, but watched his economy collapse when the Soviet bloc came apart -- taking its $4 billion to $6 billion in annual subsidies with it and ushering more than a decade of economic hardship on the Cubans.
Experts say Fidel's decision not to seek reelection to the presidency offers hope that it may become the first step in what could be a long process toward change on the island.
''It took the Soviet Union a generation after Stalin and it was three or four years after Franco before there was change in Spain,'' said Dario Moreno, a Cuba expert at Florida International University. ``The challenge for the Cuban community in Miami is patience. The Cuban government has had a year and a half to work on this transition. The lessons of this period we've gone through is that the Cuban revolutionary institutions are strong enough.''
One lingering question is whether Fidel's less charismatic brother can keep the socialist revolution going in the long-term.
Raúl is known as a man who leads by consensus. Most experts believe he will use the strength of the military, the Communist Party and National Assembly to keep a tight rein on political power while embracing economic changes to improve the daily lot of Cubans.
''Although they have some differences, they are one of a kind. They have the same interests, to stay in power,'' said Tony Alfonso, 70, a former political prisoner in Cuba. ``As long as there are no consequences, nothing is going to change. Liberate all the political prisoners, set the foundation for free elections, other than that it will just be cosmetic changes.''
And again, no one is totally counting Fidel out of the picture. Experts agree it's unlikely that anyone - even Raúl - will even command as much influence as his brother.
''I don't believe someone as narcissistic as him will be absolutely removed from power,'' said Andy Gómez with the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. ``He will continue to be consulted. What you may see now are some newer, younger faces.''
Fidel has long been the revolution's icon. While Cubans are fed up with shortages and low salaries, he is still admired and respected as the charismatic chief who defied the United States and kept Cuba afloat despite the post-Soviet economic collapse.
''We are all very sad. We are all Fidelistas in this house. But we understand that he's sick, and physically he doesn't have the strength to continue even though he still has the mental capacity,'' María Cecilia Colón, a woman from Havana told The Miami Herald in a telephone interview.
As for where Cuba needs to go from here, she says, she wants to see ``the country continue to progress. I want to see an elimination of the blockade so that Cuba can be like any other country. We know the a revolution is difficult and rife with challenges, but I believe we can succeed.''
Fidel himself has not taken himself completely out of the picture. He said he plans to continue being a soldier for the revolution, although his weapons this time will only be words.
''This is not my farewell to you,'' he wrote. ' 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.''
Miami Herald staff writers Luisa Yáñez, Adam Beasley, Jacqueline Charles, Oscar Corral and Alejandra Labanca contributed to this report from Miami.