Fidel Castro's Slow Fadeout

Cuba's ailing leader gives up government posts, though he remains head of the Communist Party.

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Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba almost five decades ago, and for almost that entire time, observers have been speculating on what a post-Castro Cuba would look like.

Today's announcement that the ailing Castro is retiring as Cuba's president and commander in chief feels like the beginning of the end. At first, however, not much is likely to change.

For one thing, it's not really a post-Castro era yet. Castro appears to be retaining his role at the top of Cuba's Communist Party, and he has already anointed his brother Raúl as his successor. Raúl Castro has been serving as acting president since July 31, 2006, when Fidel Castro underwent urgent intestinal surgery.

The post-Fidel era could bring some small, incremental changes, particularly efforts to boost the country's moribund economy. Raúl Castro has said publicly that he favors some "structural changes" to the economy and also admitted that government wages, which average about $19 a month, are inadequate.

But for U.S. officials, as well as numerous Cuban exiles in the United States, the moment is an emotional one. Amid all the legends that surround Fidel Castro, he has always been an uncomfortable symbol of the limits of U.S. power.

For all of Washington's efforts to isolate the Cuban dictator—not to mention a few aimed at simply killing him—the 81-year-old ruler is going out on his own terms. Just the way he ruled Cuba for 49 years.