By Karin Caifa in Washington, D.C.
An important day on the campaign trail became even more monumental as Fidel Castro resigned as president of Cuba, citing his ailing health. Castro held power of the communist state about 90 miles offshore from the United States for nearly 50 years. The Cuban dictator weighed in on the 2008 presidential race here in the U.S. periodically, and today, the four major candidates took the opportunity to comment on his regime and resignation.
Castro took power on January 1, 1959, and was the world's longest-ruling head of state outside of royal monarchs. Barack Obama, born in 1961, has never known Cuba without Castro. "Today should mark the end of a dark era in Cuba's history," the Democratic candidate said in a statement this morning. "Fidel Castro's stepping down is an essential first step, but it is sadly insufficient in bringing freedom to Cuba."
Obama added that Castro's departure is not enough, nor is the succession of Castro by his younger brother Raul. But he said if Cuba makes a real effort toward democracy, the U.S. should acknowledge that by changing trade policies. "If the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change, the United States must be prepared to begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades," Obama continued.
In an August 2007 editorial in Granma, the Cuban communist party newspaper where his resignation appeared today, Castro criticized Obama and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for their calls for democracy in Cuba. But Castro also wrote that a Democratic ticket with Clinton as president and Obama as her running mate would be an unbeatable combination, dubbing the pairing, "invincible."
Clinton addressed Castro's resignation at a roundtable in Parma, Ohio, this morning. "It is a very stark reminder that even if you have been in power for fifty years, you cannot hold onto power forever and people of Cuba deserve to have leadership that respects their human rights and gives them the opportunity to, you know, fulfill their own destiny."
"We need a president who will work with countries around the world, in Europe and the Western Hemisphere to push Cuba now to join the community of nations and to become a democracy. And I will certainly do that as president."
Last week a Castro editorial in Granma accused Republican John McCain of lying about Cubans torturing American prisoners of war in Vietnam. McCain had made the comments while speaking to anti-Castro exiles in Miami prior to the Florida primary. Castro slammed McCain in an article titled, "The Republican Candidate (Part One)," and described McCain as "a pawn of that mafia" of conservative Cuban-Americans.
This morning McCain told reporters in Brookfield, Wisconsin, that Castro's departure opens the door for great change in Cuba. "This is a great opportunity for Cuba to make a transition to democracy, to empty their political prisons, to invite human rights organizations into the country, and to begin the transition into a free and open society, and allow the people of Cuba the same opportunity that people all over the world deserve."
Republican rival Mike Huckabee also released a statement on Castro's departure, and said it's not enough. "Until Fidel Castro is dead there can be no significant movement towards reform in Cuba," he said in a statement. "Raul Castro has proven that he's as much a tyrant and dictator as his brother Fidel. Simply providing more power to another dictator does nothing to promote freedom and democracy to the Cuban people."