Cuban exiles and government officials in the U.S. welcomed Fidel Castro's announcement Tuesday that he was resigning as president of the country he has ruled for nearly 50 years.

"I will not aspire to nor accept -- I repeat, I will not aspire to nor accept -- the post of President of the Council of State and Commander in Chief,'' read a letter signed by Castro published early Tuesday in the online edition of the Communist Party daily Granma.

In Miami's Little Havana, many Cuban exiles gathered at cafes as motorists honked their horns in celebration.

However, the reaction was subdued in comparison to the massive crowds that celebrated in the streets when Castro handed over temporary power to his brother, Raul, in 2006.

In July of that year, Castro ceded power to his brother after announcing he had undergone intestinal surgery.

The ailing 81-year-old has ruled over Cuba since 1959 after Dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country. In 1961, Castro declared Cuba a socialist state.

Since his surgery, Castro has not appeared in public with only official photographs and videotapes of the leader having been released.

"My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath. That's what I can offer,'' Castro wrote in his resignation letter.

"(But) 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.''

Cuban reforms

Peter Kornbluh, with George Washington University's National Security Archive, told CTV Newsnet that Castro has chosen to depart on his own terms.

"It is an extraordinary move on his part," said Kornbluh. "Most leaders of his kind usually leave office in a coffin or during a military coup.

"In his case, he has chosen to step aside and facilitate a very smooth transition to his brother and to some of the disciples that he and his brother have cultivated."

Many on Havana's streets view the move with a sense of admiration, saying it shows Castro's strength to leave on his own terms.

"It's a way of hitting the enemy who thought he would stay forever," Guillermo Rodriguez told CTV's Lisa Laflamme. "(He showed them) they were wrong."

Last month, a new National Assembly was elected in Cuba. The assembly will meet for the first time on Sunday to pick the governing Council of State, which will include the presidency.

Raul Castro, who is widely expected to be picked as president, has hinted at modest economic and other reforms.

John Kirk, a Cuban affairs analyst, told CTV's Canada AM on Monday that Raul Castro has initiated significant reforms in Cuba in the last 18 months, including:

  • Large state farms leased to small farmers to increase produce
  • Payment to foreign workers being made legal
  • The release of 80 political prisoners

U.S. position

The U.S., which has a long-time economic embargo against Cuba, has tried many times to topple Castro's government. Most famously, in 1961, Castro survived a CIA-backed invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs.

U.S. President George Bush welcomed the announcement Tuesday.

"What does this mean for the people in Cuba?'' Bush asked rhetorically at a news conference in Rwanda.

"They're the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro. They're the ones who were put in prison because of their beliefs. They're the ones who have been denied their right to live in a free society.

"So I view this as a period of transition and it should be the beginning of the democratic transition in Cuba.''

Cuba and the U.S. clashed soon after Castro took power because the leader seized American property in the country and welcomed Soviet aid.

Critics of Castro call him a dictator who has denied the people of Cuba such civil liberties as free speech, movement and assembly.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Tuesday that the trade embargo won't be lifted "any time soon."

But Kornbluh said the resignation presents "an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to change what has been almost 50 years of perpetual antagonism towards Cuba."

William LeoGrande, professor of Latin American politics and Dean of School of Public Affairs at American University, said U.S. policy will most likely stay the same until a new president is elected.

But LeoGrande said U.S. politicians are always cautious about how to approach the issue.

"In U.S. elections there's a big incentive to be tough on Cuba because of the Cuban-American vote in Florida and because Florida is always a state that's in contention," he told CTV Newsnet.

Canadian tourism won't be affected

With no access to American markets, Cuba has long looked to Canada to fuel its flagging economy -- particularly Canadian tourists. The Cuban Office of National Statistics says Canadians make up 30 per cent of all tourists to that country, counting 600,000 Canadian visitors in 2006.

"They've really bet the farm on tourism," Trent University history professor Robert Wright told CTV.ca on Tuesday from Havana. "They're downsizing sugar, they're closing mills... They get 2.5 million tourists annually now and Castro has gone on record saying Cuba could support 10 million tourists. Tourism means a lot."

With such a large segment of the country's economy dependant on tourist dollars, it will be in Cuba's interest to ensure Canadians the new boss is the same as the old boss. However, this will most likely be done behind the scenes, says Wright -- the author of "Three Nights in Havana," a book on the relationship between Fidel Castro and Pierre Trudeau during the Cold War.

"Tour providers are brought at the expense of the Cubans to those resorts (so they) can see what wonderful properties they are," Wright said, noting this type of courting assures travel agents the country is stable and encourages them to sell packages to Cuban destinations.

"I don't think you'll see them gutting the expense of the actual vacation packages... That would give the impression things aren't going well," he said.

With files from CTV's Lisa LaFlamme and the Associated Press