Fidel Castro's resignation as president of Cuba, uttered in the middle of the night from the wings of a political stage he has commanded for nearly five decades, left in doubt only one thing:
Who now will fill the role he created?
Cubans won't have to wait long to find out. The country's new president is expected to emerge Sunday when a newly elected Parliament meets in Havana to vote on the all-important Council of State.
Two clear favorites dominate the field: Castro's younger brother and acting president Raul Castro, 76, and longtime economic czar Carlos Lage, 56.
Castro's decision was not unexpected. After stepping down temporarily in July 2006 due to unspecified intestinal surgery, his convalescence has taken far longer than expected. The government has periodically released photographs and video of him meeting visiting leaders, but he has not been seen in public for 19 months.
"He finally recognized he couldn't go on. He's not immortal," said Wayne Smith, a Cuba expert at the Washington-based Center for International Policy and former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba.
Castro must have been tempted to cling to office until the end of this year when Cuba celebrates the 50th anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power. "My wish has always been to discharge my duties to my last breath," he noted in his letter Tuesday.
After 49 years in power, Castro chose to make the announcement in the online version of the state newspaper, Granma, citing his weak health.
"It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion, that I am not in a physical condition to offer," he wrote.
His retirement from the presidency was a personal victory over his enemies who sought to assassinate or overthrow him. Maybe that's why Miami's Cuban exiles were noticeably quieter Tuesday than they were in July 2006 when some greeted news of his grave condition with street celebrations.
It also marked a potential pivotal moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, stymied for so long by the lack of political change in Cuba. A bipartisan group of more than 100 members of Congress sent a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling for a complete review of U.S. policy toward to island nation.
The Bush administration was resolute, however, dismissing any likely change in the 46-year-old U.S. economic embargo of the communist regime.
Castro bade his farewell without expressing a preference over who should succeed him, testament to his faith in those left in charge.
Castro's natural successor is Raul Castro, who has served as the country's acting president during his brother's illness. But Raul Castro's age, plus his dislike for the political limelight, leads some analysts to speculate that the job could go to Lage, who represents a new generation of Cuban politicians who have risen under the tutelage of the Castros.
Fidel Castro hinted as much in his letter on Tuesday. While noting that "our revolution can count on cadres from the old guard ...who have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement," he also tipped his hat to Lage's generation.
"There is also the intermediate generation which learned together with us the basics of the complex and almost unattainable art of organizing and leading a revolution," he wrote.
Unlike the Castros, Lage is a civilian who typically appears in public in a white Cuban guayabera dress shirt or a business suit, rather than military uniform. Lage exercises wide control over government administration, much like a prime minister, and often represents Cuba at official events abroad.
Lage has earned a place over the last two decades as one of Fidel Castro's trusted advisers. When Castro ceded power, he gave Lage sole responsibility for energy and the economy.
A pediatrician by training, Lage is from a family with excellent revolutionary credentials. A distinguished student leader he rose through the ranks to become a member of the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee in 1991.
In the 1990s he was frequently seen at Castro's side at major events. He became indispensable after the collapse of the Soviet Union during what came to be known in Cuba as the "Special Period," when the country struggled to adapt to the loss of trade with Moscow.
If the new president is Raul Castro, no one could be better prepared. "Raul has been in the background all these years," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst now living in Miami. "But he is the man who has implemented many of Fidel's policies. He's an army guy. He's organized and he's efficient."
Raul Castro has served at Fidel Castro's side throughout the entire history of the Cuban revolution, including 49 years as minister of defense. "Since the late 1950s, he has been a full partner with Fidel, his only truly indispensable ally," writes Brian Latell, the CIA's former Cuba analyst. "In fact Fidel probably could not have survived in power for so many years had it not been for Raul's steady management of the armed forces."
Whoever takes over the presidency, analysts say the country appears headed down a path of gradual economic reforms.
"Power is shifting in a different direction," said Frank Mora, who teaches national security strategy at the National War College. "Raul has raised expectations. At this point it's time to deliver."
But reforms will be gradual and modest. "This won't be perestroika," Mora added, referring to the economic restructuring in the late 1980s that led to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. "If you create too many autonomous spaces that could undermine absolute political control."
But Cuban officials have stressed that Castro's departure does not mean Cuba will dismantle the socialist economy as critics would like. Raul Castro made that clear Jan. 20 when he said Cuba faced a period of "big decisions - little by little."
Fidel Castro himself is now expected to take a back seat, limiting himself to what some have called his role as "Commentator in Chief," a reference to the series of essays, or "Reflections," he has published in state newspapers during his illness.
Health permitting, Castro's influence will likely still be felt. He remains a member of Parliament and is likely to be elected to the 31-member Council of State, Cuba's top executive body, on Sunday. Castro also retains his powerful post as first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, the country's only political party.
Castro made it clear Tuesday he would not be disappearing altogether, promising to continue writing his essays, though he promised not to interfere too much.
"I do not bid you farewell," he said. "Perhaps my voice will be heard. I will be careful."
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Felipe Perez Roque
"The question really should be what does this mean for the people in Cuba? . . . They're the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro. . . . They're the ones who have been denied a right to live in a free society."
"I don't think it will be more of the same. 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."
Oscar Espinosa ChepeCuban dissident economist
"This is a complete joke, guys. He's not the president of Cuba. When was he elected? . . . The only news in Cuba that will ever matter is the day that they announce they are having free democratic elections."
Marco Rubio, Florida House speaker
More reaction from around the world, 7A
Castro's possible successors
Raul Castro, 76. Acting president since July 2006. Fidel's brother, Cuba's defense minister for 50 years and its highest-ranking general. As first vice president of the Council of State and first vice president of the Council of Ministers (Cabinet), he is Fidel's constitutional successor. Lacks Fidel's popular appeal and talent for public speaking. Regarded as more open to economic reform, he is credited with increasing the food supply after the withdrawal of Soviet aid in the 1990s. Has hinted a collective leadership would govern Cuba following his brother's death or resignation.
Carlos Lage Davila, 56. Finance minister, vice president of Council of State and secretary of the Council of Ministers. A trained pediatrician, he became an adviser to Fidel in the early 1990s because of academic expertise on U.S. history and politics, and economics. Considered de facto prime minister, controlling much of day-to-day activities. Following the loss of Soviet aid, initiated reforms that allowed limited land ownership and small businesses. Coordinating energy, trade and currency issues, he is credited with bringing Venezuelan oil to Cuba.
Felipe Perez Roque, 42. Foreign minister and member of Council of State. Was the youngest member of government when appointed in 1999. One of the few born after the revolution. Appears to have lost ground to Lage under Raul, significant because Roque has been a key member of Fidel's inner circle among the hard-line Communists. A former electronics engineer and student leader, he served as Fidel's chief of staff for a decade.
Ricardo Alarcon, 70. Chairman of the National Assembly. Former foreign minister and former ambassador to the United Nations for more than 20 years. One of Cuba's most visible promoters and spokesmen, especially for the Cuban Five - nationals jailed in the United States for espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. It is believed he would play a smaller role if Raul takes over.
Ramiro Valdes, 75. Minister of information and communication since 2006. Commentators believe he will play a bigger role under Raul's leadership. Long believed to be Raul's opponent, he is in charge of key sectors such as the Internet. A historical figure of the Cuban revolution. Former interior minister, vice prime minister.
Jose Ramon Balaguer, 75, health minister and one of the six council members designated by Fidel in his transfer of duties in July 2006. Old-line official, member of the political bureau of the Communist Party and Council of State.
Sources: Times files; Manchester Guardian; (London) Times citing nndb.com and Cuban government; CBS News