Let me address the “Why is Fidel Castro Stepping Down Now?” and “What Should the U.S. Do Next?” in two parts:
Part 1 – Fidel Castro Stepping Down – The Real Reason
It’s remarkable the level and quantity of debate on “why” Fidel Castro is stepping down as President, yet the absolute dearth of any correct assessment arising from it.
Why is Fidel Castro stepping down now?
The simple answer: He fears his mortality is near and accordingly his legacy in very serious jeopardy.
Here’s a man who would never give up power if he knew he’d live another 5, 10 or 15 years. Power is in his genes. It's who he is.
Therefore one must ask why then now? Perhaps he learned a lesson from history, in one iconic Alexander the Great.
Clearly it’s now dawned upon Fidel, likely through doctor messaging that his days on this planet are numbered and he should begin parting preparations. Whatever real illness he has, he’s evidently rapidly succumbing to it, evidence his “visibly” relinquishing power vis-à-vis resignation.
Alexander the Great, brilliant as he was, made a fatal, ego driven legacy mistake. He became so enamored and full of himself, and convinced in a belief that what he built would last forever, that he made no real succession planning preparations to ensure that. As a result, his death triggered ruthless power struggles, like jackals over a carcass, which ultimately led to loss of much of the empire Alexander had so proudly built.
Politics and ideology differences aside, Fidel Castro is credited as a smart and shrewd man, and evidently in this Analyst’s view, recognized, understands and is now embracing history's lesson learned from Alexander. He can now see he too runs the same risk as Alexander in having all that he’s achieved rapidly undone once he passes away.
There are many reform minded leaders in the Cuban government, notably within the powerful core leadership team, the Council of Ministers, itching for a chance at power and steering Cuba in their own direction. And just like Alexander’s lieutenants, ready to pounce on a power vacuum. If that happened, Fidel Castro runs the real risk he’ll too quickly fade into history as nothing more than a tenured dictator whose policies and ideology did not survive his death.
Therefore, the only way Fidel Castro can ensure and preserve his legacy and what he has built, is by quickly establishing a formal succession plan, and identifying someone who will carry his torch once he’s gone. Someone he trusts and has staying power. The only one he can be sure of as respects trusting is brother Raul. Trust however is not good enough. Raul needs “power grooming and consolidation”.
Fidel astutely realizes that Raul cannot overnight, as would be the case if Fidel retained power until death, be guaranteed to survive a vicious power struggle. Raul’s assumption to power under those circumstances provides no guarantee he will survive given the power grabbing free for all ala Alexander that would ensue.
So to preclude that from happening, Fidel knows Raul must secure a (strong) power base “before” Fidel passes on, to ensure Raul’s sustained longevity and Fidel’s legacy. Fidel realizes the only guarantee of that longevity then is for Raul not to be "thrown into" the role upon his death but rather "grow into" the role while he's still alive. Therefore, give Raul his wings now to endure a base building “power consolidation period” while Fidel is still alive and can act as the helpful cajoler, enforcer and usual heavy hand. In other words, let Raul learn to fly now, while big brother can provide the necessary protective air cover.
Bottom line, Fidel Castro is not stepping down because he (really) wants to or is physically (yet) unable to perform in the role of President. He’s stepping down now solely and because he’s astutely learned Alexander’s legacy lesson on succession planning and legacy preservation/continuity. To ensure his, he has to get Raul “promptly and officially” in the job, out and about, and with enough time to secure that power base, so when Fidel Castro closes his eyes for the final time, there is absolutely no debate or food fight as to “who’s in charge”.
That said, the question then becomes: