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People stand at the entrance of a building next to a photograph of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana. JAVIER GALEANO/AP Photo gallery
Cubans hope next leader brings economic change

Facing miserable salaries, high food prices and laws that make most profitable activities illegal, Cubans are increasingly hoping that Fidel Castro's decision to step down will open the island's doors to significant economic reforms.

Castro's announcement Tuesday that he will not seek reelection as president may be just the break his brother Raúl had been awaiting, experts say.

Raúl Castro, 76, is considered a potential reformer whose hands have been tied by the looming presence of an older brother who stepped aside because of illness nearly 19 months ago, but continued to voice his opposition to change from his hospital bed through his recurring newspaper columns.

The announcement marks the official end of 49 years of rule by one of the world's last communist leaders and a steady thorn in the side of U.S. presidents, although the 81-year-old is expected to remain a powerful voice as long as he lives. His carefully managed succession of power deals a blow to South Florida's exile community, which had long hoped to see the Castro dictatorship toppled.

Cuba's National Assembly meets Sunday to choose the 31 members of the Council of State, the government's top body. It's also expected to elect the council's president, the title long held by Castro. Most experts say the actual decision will be made exclusively by the brothers, with an eye toward maintaining a socialist revolution in the face of apathetic youth and a frustrated public.

With one Castro out of the way, the big question now is who will be chosen as Cuba's next leader and whether that person will have the authority to make changes that will put more food on Cubans' tables and money in their pockets.

As South Florida exiles clamor for democracy and freedom for the island, Cubans there cry for better housing, buses and lives in a country where the average monthly salary is $15.

''Nobody talks about Fidel Castro anymore,'' said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. ``What everybody talks about is change, change, change. And they think Raúl Castro has been blocked from making those changes.''

Castro announced in a letter published in the Granma newspaper on Tuesday that his health will not allow him to accept another term as president. He did not say Raúl would succeed him, or whether he would step down from his other powerful post as head of the Cuban Communist Party.

He suggested he had lost mental faculties at one point during his illness, and hinted Raúl had pressured him into clinging to his title until this week even though his health was poor.

''It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer,'' the letter said. ``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.''

His absence from the political scene raises many new possibilities for the revolution, particularly since nearly two-thirds of the country's 11.2 million people were born after 1959 and have known no other leader.

Yet Castro's successor will take office amid increasing complaints against the system's shortcomings, particularly high prices and low wages.

Dissident León Padrón noted that under Raúl Castro's short time in office, children were let out of school for Christmas vacation, the government agreed to sign some human rights accords and President Bush was shown on Cuban TV attacking the Castro regime. Raúl Castro also called for nationwide meetings to encourage complaint, a move some say could lead to a loss of control.

But Fidel Castro opposes the kinds of changes Raúl embraces, and often has penned editorials to let him know it.

''Fidel has always had his hand in everything, making it impossible for Raúl to take over and make change,'' Padrón said by phone from Havana. ``Raúl has had power since Fidel got sick, but now it will be legitimate. This legitimacy will offer a new turn for the nation.''

Experts say addressing those systemic flaws is the biggest challenge for Cuba's next leader, especially since 1.5 million Cubans were born under the abject misery that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its $4 billion to $6 billion in annual subsidies.

''The most important thing now is Feb. 24th, and whether or not they will elect Raúl or someone like [Vice President Carlos] Lage, who could be the face of change -- someone who, if he goes too far, can be sacrificed,'' said Uva Aragon, associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute. ``If it gets out of hand, Raúl can step in with repression, and if it works out, he can take the credit.''

Raúl Castro must know the stakes are high.

''I don't think that Raúl and the leadership around him have any misconceptions about how much pressure is being generated just below the surface,'' said Brian Latell, a retired CIA expert on Cuba now teaching at the University of Miami. ``He has allowed a certain decompression with the young generation, and now he's going to have to deliver.''

Cubans in Miami took the news in stride, with some dismissing Castro's resignation as an insignificant development while maintaining hope for future change. While thousands of Cuban Americans took to the streets in glee the night of July 31, 2006, when Fidel Castro first announced his illness, only a few dozen gathered in Little Havana on Tuesday.

Reaction was also muted in Cuba, where the streets were business as usual.

Zaida Cuza, a 95-year-old reached at her home in Havana, said someone must continue Castro's legacy.

''I am very sad. I love him a lot,'' she said. ``I want to see Raúl [get the job], although I know there are others who can also do the job.''

But Laura Pollán, a member of the Ladies in White dissident group, said this is Raúl Castro's chance to prove he is really interested in change 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 in a White House statement that he hoped this was the beginning of democracy for Cuba.

''The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy,'' Bush said. ``Eventually, this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections.''

While some moderate groups said Castro's resignation illustrated a failed U.S. policy, the administration defended it.

''Change does not happen by playing musical chairs among dictators,'' U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez -- Bush's only Cuban-American Cabinet member -- told The Miami Herald. ``We have denied a cruel, violent, repressive dictatorship resources to continue to oppress Cuban people.''

In an interview from Paraguay with WLTV-23 Univisión, James Cason, former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, said he doubts there will be any profound changes.

''I know that within the Cuban people, they want profound change. They want to live free,'' Cason said from Asunción. ``When both Castros are no longer there, then it may be possible to truly have a transition.''

Raúl Castro also may opt to wield power from his current positions and allow the Council of State to choose a younger leader. Many Cuba observers suggest Lage, who is considered a pragmatic economic reformer. Others say it is unlikely both Castro brothers would retire at once, exposing a well-managed succession to risks.

Raúl Castro's 19 months in office have been marked by stability, which served to underscore the strength of Cuba's military and Communist Party. But he lacks his brother's charisma and is unlikely to ever assume Castro's role as iconic symbol.

''There will be nostalgia for Fidel, but I think Cubans will also applaud this,'' Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. mission in Havana and now a critic of U.S. policy, said in a phone interview. ``This never-never land they've been living in has not been to their liking.''

But Castro's retirement letter said he vowed not to bid farewell just yet.

''My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas,'' 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.''

Miami Herald correspondents Juan O. Tamayo and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.