Oliver North

WASHINGTON -- Fidel Castro is finally on his way out. After nearly 50 years of bloody, iron-fisted rule, the world's longest-reigning dictator -- and one of the last communist tyrants on the planet -- has announced that he is stepping down. That's good news, but it's not likely to change much for the 11 million captive people in Cuba.

On Feb. 19, Granma, the Cuban Communist Party's organ, carried a letter purportedly written by the 81-year-old ailing autocrat announcing that ill health prevents him from continuing to "discharge the duties" of president and commander in chief of Cuba's armed forces. He will, the paper reverently notes, no longer be referred to as "El Comandante." Instead, he simply will be addressed as "Comrade Fidel" -- just like that other wonderful old and venerated leader, "Comrade Mao."

In the same missive that announced his "retirement," Castro said, "I am not saying goodbye to you." That part is apparently true. He's hanging on as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party and promises to continue penning diatribes on domestic and world affairs. Think of him as the elder statesman of despotism.

"It would be a betrayal to my conscience," he wrote, "to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer."

Conscience? Where was this anguished sense of right and wrong in 1962, when he urged Nikita Khrushchev to "launch a pre-emptive (nuclear) strike against the United States"? Where was it in 1980, when he set more than 100,000 of his countrymen adrift in the Gulf Stream on homemade rafts and leaky boats from Mariel, Cuba? Where was this Castro conscience in the 1980s, when he dispatched tens of thousands of young Cuban soldiers to Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Angola as Soviet mercenaries? Where were Fidel's now vaunted scruples in 1996, when he ordered his air force to shoot down two unarmed light planes, killing four civilians from Brothers to the Rescue while they searched for endangered refugees adrift in international waters? Where was Castro's now tortured conscience in 2000, when he demanded that little Elian Gonzalez be returned to his "island paradise"?

On the evening of Castro's nostalgic resignation, ABC News' "Nightline" offered a "retrospective," describing the brutal despot as "a patriarch" and reflected wistfully on how Castro had retained office while 10 U.S. presidents had come and gone. The following morning, New York Times correspondent Anthony DePalma, "reporting" from Havana, successfully avoided mentioning the 286 political prisoners rotting in Cuban jails, while gushing that Castro's hand-picked heir apparent -- the dictator's 76-year-old brother, Raul -- "has a pragmatic streak."

Oliver North

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.