HAVANA — Fidel Castro said Tuesday he resigned five years ago from all his official positions, including head of Cuba's Communist Party, a pre-eminent job in the island's political pantheon that he was thought to still hold.
In this Sept. 28, 2010, file photo, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro delivers a speech during the 50th anniversary of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, CDR, in Havana, Cuba. Castro said Tuesday, March 22, 2011, he resigned five years ago from all his official positions, including head of Cuba's Communist Party, a position he was thought to still hold. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano, File)
It was the first time the 84-year-old revolutionary icon has said he no longer heads the Communist Party, which he has led since its creation in 1965. The Communist Party website still lists him as first secretary, with his brother President Raul Castro listed as second secretary.
The declaration raised questions about just how much power Fidel Castro has been wielding behind the scenes — with or without a formal post — and to what extent Raul Castro has had true freedom to make his own decisions.
Castro wrote in an opinion piece that when he got sick in 2006, "I resigned without hesitation from my state and political positions, including first secretary of the party ... and I never tried to exercise those roles again."
He said that even when his health began to improve, he stayed out of state and party affairs "even though everyone, affectionately, continued to refer to me by the same titles."
Castro's comments come just weeks ahead of a crucial Communist Party Congress, in which it was widely expected that a new party leader would be picked — presumably his brother. The Congress also is tasked with endorsing a series of major economic changes Raul Castro has enacted since taking over the presidency, including opening the island up to limited private enterprise.
"I think it's significant, because if nothing else it's Fidel Castro sending a clear message that his brother is in charge of the country," said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Cuba Study Group, which supports increasing economic and academic exchanges with the island. "He's setting the ground ahead of the party congress for there to be a smooth transition."
The elder Castro stepped down in 2006 due to a serious illness that almost killed him. In an official proclamation released on July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro provisionally delegated most of his official duties to his brother — including the presidency and head of the party.
In February 2008 he announced he was officially stepping down as president, and Raul Castro was formally picked to succeed him by the country's parliament a few days later. But no reference was made to Fidel leaving his party post, and Cuban officials and ordinary people have referred to him as the party leader ever since.
While the government historically has focused on the day-to-day running of the country, the party is tasked with guiding the Cuban people on their path to communism. In practice, no major policy can be passed without the party first agreeing.
The opinion piece, which was published on the state-run Cubadebate website overnight and in newspapers Tuesday morning, caught many people by surprise.
"It's incredible. Nobody can believe it," said Magaly Delgado, a 72-year-old Havana retiree who was clutching a copy of Granma, the Communist Party daily. "I always thought he was still in charge. ... He never said he had resigned."
The Cuban government had no immediate comment on the bizarre revelation, which raises fundamental questions about assumptions that have been made about how Cuba has been led since Raul Castro took over.
Many were slow to acknowledge at first that Raul Castro held any power at all and doubted that the quiet and unassuming younger brother could step out from the shadow of his larger-than-life older sibling. In those initial days, Raul said he would make decisions in consultation with Fidel, though he has not repeated that in recent years.
Doubters — including many in the Cuban-American exile community — pointed to Fidel's leadership of the party as evidence the arrangement was just for show, despite the fact the elder Castro has since revealed that his 2006 illness put him on the brink of death.
If Fidel's statement Tuesday is taken at face value, it would suggest that his brother has been flying solo since he took over in 2006, at least officially.
Castro's traditional foes in the exile community reacted with bewilderment.
"It shows the absolute lack of transparency because for the last five years everyone in Cuba, everyone in the world, thought he was the head of the Communist Party, so it shows how absolutely closed and totalitarian and personal that dictatorship is," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the Washington-based U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. "At the end of the day, only he knew he wasn't in power."
Despite the drama of the announcement, it is not clear what importance it has on an island ruled by the force of Fidel Castro's personality for many decades.
In the opinion piece, Fidel indicates that, with or without formal titles, he will always be an intellectual force in the revolution, a refrain he has uttered several times in recent years.
"I remain and will remain as I have promised: a soldier of ideas, as long as I can think and breathe," he writes.
While nobody was expecting Fidel Castro's announcement to come the way it did — as a fait accompli thrown into a long opinion piece that otherwise focuses on criticism of President Barack Obama — speculation has been rampant that he would soon step down.
If the 79-year-old Raul Castro moves up to the top spot, it will give the Cuban leaders a chance to pick someone without their famous last name to hold the No. 2 position, potentially tapping a would-be successor after 52 years of uninterrupted rule since they ousted Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
In interviews and public appearances in recent months, Fidel Castro has intimated that he no longer has much say in party business. When he met with Cuban students in November, one asked for his thoughts on the upcoming Congress.
Castro politely brushed the question aside, telling the students he was not meeting with them in his capacity as party chief.
By way of explanation, he added: "I got sick and I did what I had to do: delegate my duties. I cannot do something if I am not in a condition to dedicate all my time to it."