Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said Tuesday he would formally relinquish power, prompting Western governments to express hope the Caribbean island will start to move towards eventual democracy. In a letter that appeared overnight on a state newspaper Web site, Castro insisted Cuba’s National Assembly not appoint him to another five-year term as head of state when it meets Sunday.

Castro’s younger brother Raul has run Cuba as “temporary” leader since his 81-year-old sibling underwent intestinal surgery in July, 2006. But there was always the possibility the elder Castro would recover and return to the helm.

“I will not aspire to, or accept, the post of President of the Council of State and commander-in-chief,” Fidel Castro says, citing health problems.

The United States, European governments and Canada signalled Castro’s retirement has the potential to be an important milestone in Cuba’s political evolution — though no one predicted rapid change.

“The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for a democracy, and eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections,” U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters in Rwanda, a stop on his Africa tour. “And we’re going to help. The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.”

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(Image: Fidel Castro, 1960. © Bettmann/Corbis )

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