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American Morning

Fidel Castro Resigns; What's Next for U.S. and Cuba?; Speculation about Fidel's Health; War of Words Between Clinton and Obama

Aired February 19, 2008 - 07:00   ET


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news. Fidel Castro resigns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to be a big surprise to a lot of observers.


CHETRY: After a half century in power, why now?


CHETRY: The next test. The "Most Politics in the Morning."


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's imperative that we have a president who is ready.



CHETRY: Two critical states up for grabs. Will words matter?

Outrage over a toxic toy. Tests say it's tainted, but it's still for sale. Playing with poison on this AMERICAN MORNING.

That's right. Welcome. It's Tuesday, February 19th. This is AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Kiran Chetry.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning to you. I'm John Roberts. Lots of news to tell you about.

And breaking news this morning. An end of an era in Cuba. Forty-nine years and 49 days after seizing power, Fidel Castro said he would not accept the new term as president when the newly-elected parliament meets this coming Sunday. The news came in a letter published online by Cuba's official news agency. It was signed by Castro and read, "I will not aspire or accept the post of president of the Council of State and commander-in-chief." Castro is 81 years old. He handed over power to his brother Raul in 2006 after he underwent emergency intestinal surgery. CHETRY: Well, he's antagonized 10 U.S. presidents. This morning, President Bush reacted to the news of Fidel Castro's exit while he was overseas in Africa.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The question really should be what does this mean for the people in Cuba? They're the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro. They're the ones who were put in prison because of their beliefs. They're the ones who have been denied their right to live in a free society. So I view this as a period of transition, that -- and it should be the beginning of the Democratic transition for the people in Cuba.


CHETRY: The U.S. has long planned for a post-Castro Cuba and could contribute tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian and economic aid if the country commits to democracy.

CNN is the only network with a correspondent based permanently in Cuba. That's our bureau chief there, Morgan Neill, and he joins us this morning from Havana. Morgan, good to see you. So the president referring to this as a --


CHETRY: He's referring to this as a period of transition and hopefully a period of democracy. How realistic do you think that is as you talk to people about this news today in Cuba?

NEILL: Well, it's certainly a transition. Some would say it's a transition that really started about a year and a half ago. That is a move from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul. Today's announcement essentially making official what we saw a year and a half ago. Now, it's not a done deal that Raul will be the one named as president of the Council of State on Sunday. It just appears that it would be the most likely choice as he has been at the helm day-to-day for the last year and a half.

Now in that letter that you can see here, it's just splashed across it is the entire front page of the newspaper. Fidel Castro writes as to why he's resigning. He says it would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept the responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I'm physically able to offer. Now, as I say, the National Assembly will have to choose a new president on Sunday. Raul does appear to be the most evident choice, but not a forgone conclusion.

Now, although he is resigning in this letter we've seen today, in the newspapers online, et cetera, Fidel Castro is bound to continue having an important role in Cuba simply because no one else has influence in this country. And at the end of the letter that he wrote today, we hear from Fidel Castro himself. He says this is not my farewell to you -- Kiran. CHETRY: You know, it is interesting, you say that he says it's not my farewell. This is more of a resignation. This is not the announcement of the death of Castro. And so, it seems that there's still -- there's a little bit of uncertainty as to what to expect and what the reaction is and should be.

NEILL: That's right. That's absolutely right. Over the last week, we've been talking to a lot of Cubans in anticipation of the meeting coming up this Sunday. Of course, we didn't anticipate this announcement today. Nevertheless, we were asking what they thought might happen.

And a lot of the responses we got from young Cubans were that, what do I care who is named the president of the country? That's not what affects me day-to-day. Talk to me about the things that we've been wanting to see change for years now. Talk to me about increased salaries, an end to the double currency in Cuba, under which Cubans are paid in one currency but have to buy many of their basic goods and another that is worth 25 times less. These are the kinds of things that we've been hearing -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Morgan Neill for us in Havana this morning. Thank you.

ROBERTS: And let's bring in our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour who joins us this morning. So what do you make of all of this? Is anything really going to change? It was expected that this would happen with a thunder clap. Instead, as Pamela Falk pointed out in our last hour, it's kind of happened with a whimper.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, it has and it's been a long time coming. As Morgan pointed out, this has been more than a year in the making. Nobody really expected Fidel Castro to get back into the rule of power that he's had. But the key question, of course, having bedeviled successive administrations in the United States over the last 50 odd years, is this an opportunity that the United States can seize? In other words, will the United States be able to change its policy towards Cuba because of this move? Or will it demand more?

You've already heard President Bush talk about the need for democracy, free and fair elections in Cuba. But will this be enough to start the ball rolling? Obviously, talking to a lot of people who have been to Cuba several times, also here, there are many Cuban- Americans, even within CNN and everybody has an opinion. Partly, that this embargo has gone on too long and it's achieving nothing for both countries, but also mindful of the fact that really terrible things are going on still in Cuba and they need to be changed. Total lack of freedom, the lack of the ability to make money and to be able to actually put food on the table -- all of these are real issues.

ROBERTS: What's your sense of things? Will anything change as long as Castro remains alive, and might it change after his eventual death?

AMANPOUR: Well, the thing is, it looks like he's out of the picture. So the question is at what point do you say things are changing? It's up to the United States to decide, up to this administration and indeed, the next president, whoever that next president will be. It will be one of those challenges that are on the table. But clearly, here you have a little island, not far off the United States, it does not pose a huge security threat by any stretch of the imagination. But ideologically, the United States and Cuba's Castro have not been able to get together.

ROBERTS: You have this fierce lobby in south Florida...

AMANPOUR: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: ... that it's not willing to accept anything but a total embargo against Cuba. I mean, do they now potentially change their position to say there's a transition going on here, let's try to take advantage of it and as the United States has done with some other countries, you sort of enact change by embracing them?

AMANPOUR: Well, the question is exactly that. Will they be able to -- will there be enough change? If it is Raul, will he show that there is a progress towards the kind of thing that the Cuban people want, which is openness, freedom, the ability to have enough wherewithal, and, you know, the same kind of bread and butter issues that everybody all around the world wants. Obviously, Cuba has been the leader in many things such as education, health care -- all of those things that it's been able to bring to its people but not the fundamentals.

ROBERTS: Is there this idea that as long as a Castro remains in power, or one of his cronies, even if it was Ricardo Alarcon, that there will be no dialogue with Cuba?

AMANPOUR: It's potentially possible, but I think it's more about the moves that are made than the people who are there. If the new leadership decides to gradually move towards reform, that would be a signal to the United States. If not, then clearly it appears that the United States won't change its policy in the short-term.

ROBERTS: Right. So your sense then of where we are right now is nothing changes?

AMANPOUR: Well, I think things do change because he's gone from the scene. He's not dead, but he's gone from the scene, and this has been a long time coming. So it's almost like it's giving time to be able to think about a new policy, because clearly the old one is old and it's not bringing any dividends either to the United States or to the people of Cuba. So the question is, how do we get out of this stalemate and how do we do something that is imaginative, that's out of the box and that benefits the people not just in Cuba but the Cuban-Americans here, and indeed, the relations between the United States and Cuba.

ROBERTS: Well, we'll see what happens. Christian Amanpour, as always, it's great to see you.

AMANPOUR: Thank you. ROBERTS: Thanks for dropping here -- Kiran.

CHETRY: As we have been saying, Fidel Castro has not been seen publicly since he underwent surgery back in July of 2006, and Cuba has been very secretive, in fact, a national secret about his health. There were rumors of cancer and then reports of botched surgery. So will we ever come closer to knowing exactly how Fidel Castro is?

CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us now live at the medical update desk. You know, we've been talking all morning. When was the last time he was seen? What we do know was that he did a taped television interview September 21, 2007, where he seemed to reference some current events, leading people to believe that yes, indeed, it was taped when they said it was taped. But other than that, we have not seen from Fidel Castro in a very long time.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, about 19 months. And, you know -- look, he's 81 years old. The most recent health crisis was something we all followed closely and there were a lot of concerns at that point that he may not survive that. In fact, that the cause was cancer. We have reports now from a Spanish surgeon who actually examined him at the time about what happened, and this was in July of 2006, when people are paying such close attention.

Let me give you some of the details here, Kiran, because I think there were important. What seems to have been at the heart of this was diverticulitis, which is essentially an inflammation of the intestines that led to some bleeding. And subsequently, he had to have an operation which removed part of his intestine and actually connected other parts of intestine.

What this botched surgery that you were referring to, Kiran, more a complication of surgery where that sort of connection in the intestine really didn't hold, and that led to a second operation. He had a lot of bleeding into his abdomen. He had a lot of infection of his abdomen. That all had to be operated and cleaned up the abdomen and more reconstructive surgery, if you will. Kiran, he had a third operation after that. So this was a pretty big deal.

And they say that, you know, he was pretty close to death. We hear that from a lot of people. And I will tell you as a doctor, that even in a young person, a young healthy person, to have complications like this is pretty serious. So the fact that he survived all that on someone in his late 70s, early 80s at that time, was surprising, I think, to everybody. But, you know, along with you, we haven't seen him in public for some time. I saw that taped interview like you did. He looked frail but obviously, it looks like he recovered from that surgery -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Now his brother is only about five, six years younger than him. But Raul is 76 years old. Do we know what his health is like?

GUPTA: You know, we've been trying to get details on his health, you know, really for the last couple of years now, and there's just very little out there about him. Now, we see him publicly and you can only make so much from that. Watching him, he looks pretty healthy there. Our colleagues in Havana tells that he appears well in person as well. But very little is really known about his health. He's 76 years old. So I'm sure he has some of the things that are associated with someone of that age, but he looks like he's pretty vibrant in some of the videos that we've seen, Kiran.

CHETRY: Sanjay, thanks. We'll check in with you in the next hour.

GUPTA: All right.

CHETRY: Also, we're going to find out what does it mean for native Cubans who escaped communist rule? Senator Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American, he came over here when he was just 15 years old. He represents thousands of others in Florida just like him. He's going to be joining us in just a few moments on AMERICAN MORNING.

ROBERTS: Well, turning now to other news this morning. It is primary day today, and voters will soon be heading to the polls in three states -- Hawaii, Washington and Wisconsin. The first polls open at 8:00 Eastern. That's 7:00 Central in Wisconsin. Washington is a Republican primary. Polls open there at 10:00 a.m. Eastern, 7:00 Pacific. Half the delegates will be allocated today. The other half, like the Democrats, on February the 9th, will be assigned later at the conventions.

And Hawaii turns out for its Democratic caucus starting at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, 6:00 a.m. Local. The results from that are not going to come in until late, late, late tonight or maybe even early tomorrow morning. In all, we're looking at 150 delegates today; 94 for the Democrats, the majority in Wisconsin, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are in a tough fight.

For the Republicans, 56 delegates are up for grabs. John McCain looking for big wins to unify the Republican Party behind his nomination.

And here's the delegate count. Barack Obama still slightly in the lead. He has 1,262 delegates to Hillary Clinton's 1,213. On the Republican side, John McCain has 830; Mike Huckabee 217.

CHETRY: Words do matter after all to Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign. It's accusing Senator Barack Obama of stealing from an old speech from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick about the power of words. Clips were posted on YouTube to prove their point.


GOV. DEVAL PATRICK (D), MASSACHUSETTS: All I have to offer is words, just words. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Just words. Just words. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just words.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Don't tell me words don't matter. I have a dream, just words? We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Just words. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just words.


CHETRY: Senator Barack Obama responded by saying that he is not the only politician to borrow a word or two.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Deval and I do trade ideas all the time. And, you know, he's occasionally used lines of mine, and I would add that I noticed Senator Clinton on occasion has used words of mine as well.


CHETRY: Obama says his friend Governor Patrick suggested that he use those lines, but he says looking back he probably should have given him credit as well.

And a reminder, don't miss the Democratic presidential debate. CNN and Univision will be hosting Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It's all live from Austin, Texas, Thursday night. It's underway at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

CNN, of course, your home for politics live from the CNN "ELECTION CENTER." The best political team covers every race all day and night. Our nonstop political coverage continues today with the "BALLOT BOWL." It gets underway at noon right here on CNN, and at 8:00 Eastern in the CNN "ELECTION CENTER."

ROBERTS: We just want to make one correction. The Hawaii caucuses start at 11:00 p.m. tonight, 6:00 p.m. Local, not 11:00 a.m. as we said. Sorry.

When we come back, a new audio tape reveals the final pleas for help from a victim of a suburban Chicago mall shooting.


DISPATCH: 911 Emergency.

MCFARLAND: Lane Bryant.

DISPATCH: Where at?


ROBERTS: More on that tape and the search for the gunman. That's coming up.

And priceless works of art stolen in broad daylight from a Swiss art museum. Now, they have turned up in a most unusual place. It's all ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROBERTS: Breaking news out of Cuba this morning. Forty-nine years and 49 days after seizing power in an armed revolution, Fidel Castro said he would not accept a new term as president when the newly elected parliament meets on Sunday. The news came in the form of a letter published online by Cuba's official news agency. Castro has ruled Cuba with absolute authority since 1959, outlasting nine American presidents. Castro handed power to his younger brother Raul in 2006 after undergoing intestinal surgery -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Veronica de la Cruz joins us now with some other stories making news this morning, including some changes for Amtrak that we may be noticing if we're riding the rail.

VERONICA DE LA CRUZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You're absolutely right about that. Good morning to you, and good morning to all of you out there.

Amtrak is announcing a new security crackdown to keep you safe. Officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol platforms and trains between Washington and Boston. Carry-on bags will also be screened randomly. Amtrak says it's trying the plan on the northeast corridor first, before expanding it across the country.

Police are still on the lookout for a gunman who fatally shot five women at a Lane Bryant store in Chicago earlier this month. The store's manager tried to call 911 from her cell phone before being discovered by the suspect. Take a listen. These are believed to be her last words.


DISPATCH: 911 Emergency.

MCFARLAND: Lane Bryant.

DISPATCH: Where at?

MCFARLAND: Tinley Park. Hurry!

DISPATCH: Stay on the line. Stay on the line. Let me get you to Tinley Park. Don't hang up.

MCFARLAND: Hurry up!


DE LA CRUZ: That woman who survived the attack gave police a description of the suspect. He is believed to be a 25 to 34-year-old African-American man. Police say he is a threat to others.

Four masterpieces stolen from a Swiss art museum have been recovered. The impressionist paintings were taken during a brazen robbery at the Swiss museum last week. The four works by Cezanne, Degas, Monet and Van Gogh were worth an estimated $163 million. They somehow turned up Monday, get this, in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital in Zurich. Go figure. And Delta and Northwest said to be pushing ahead with an agreement that would create the nation's largest airline. The boards for both companies are expected to meet today where they could vote on the transaction. Still, however, there are hang-ups. Both airlines have yet to reach an agreement with their unionized pilots.

And that is what's new this morning. Now back to Kiran and John. I think the big question is that will the cost of airline tickets go up? Maybe the quality of service go down.

ROBERTS: My big question is will they ever be able to get from here to there on time?

CHETRY: Not if it rains.

ROBERTS: Anecdotally speaking, it just seems to never happen anymore.

DE LA CRUZ: Well, yes.

CHETRY: I told you, you got to take the Acela, but now, who knows. Maybe delayed there, too.

Veronica, thanks.

DE LA CRUZ: All right.

ROBERTS: Now, they're probably going to check your bags for possible explosives. It only took seven years.

Send money fast. We'll tell you why the Air Force needs more cash coming up.

And what are the chances for democracy in Cuba? We'll ask a man who escaped communist rule there. Senator Mel Martinez next on AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: Back now to our breaking story. The news that Cuban President Fidel Castro is stepping down. What will the resignation mean for the United States and Cuba? President Bush spoke to reporters about the future of that relationship about an hour ago. White House correspondent Ed Henry is traveling with the president. He's in Kigali, Rwanda, this morning, and he joins us now.

Ed, the president said he first heard about this when reporters were shouting questions at him. He wasn't briefed on it. What was his response?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he clearly, as you note, White House caught by surprise. But the response from the president is clear and direct. That it's time for democracy in Cuba. He's here in Rwanda because he wanted to remember the genocide of 1994, and use that to pivot off and say it's time for the international community now to step up and stop what he also calls genocide right now in Darfur. And he pledged $100 million to try to beef up the U.N. peace keeping forces.

But on Cuba, that clearly eclipsing the other stories. And Mr. Bush said that while some may be tempted in the name of stability to allow a transition from one brother to the next, Fidel to Raul, it's really time for a focus on the Cuban people and a time for transition to democracy.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Eventually, this transition I believe to free and fair elections, and I mean free and I mean fair, not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy.


HENRY: Now, the Bush administration also has plans to deal with instability on the ground in Cuba. Officials in the administration there previously said that they do not think a transition of power would force a mass exodus of refugees, but nonetheless, they have plans in place to deal with that possibility. Obviously, there would be great concern if there was a mass exodus of refugees from Cuba to Miami, Florida. That is something, obviously, the U.S. Coast Guard will be paying very close attention to -- John.

ROBERTS: Cubans both in Cuba and in south Florida are expecting more of the same, at least in the interim. When the president talks about an "eventual transition to democracy," do they have any idea of how long that might take, might have happen before the president or at least begin before the president leaves office? Or will that relationship and that job be left to the next president?

HENRY: Undoubtedly, like many of the problems the U.S. is facing right now on the foreign policy front, this is very likely to be something that the next president, a Democrat or Republican, will have to deal with. But you can bet the administration is sort of chomping at the bit here to start the process at least, while Mr. Bush is in office. Many times previously, he has called for Castro's demise. Clearly, the White House elated that there will be a transition but it's too early for them right now in the initial hours to figure out how quickly this can happen. But clearly, they're going to try to do everything they can for there to be a transition to democracy as soon as possible, John.

ROBERTS: Ed Henry for us this morning in Kigali, Rwanda. Ed, thanks very much -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Still ahead, what Fidel Castro's exit means for Cubans here in the U.S. Senator Mel Martinez is going to be joining us next. He is a senator. He's somebody who also lived in Cuba, came over to the United States when he was just 15 years old.

And after years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force needs more money. We're going to tell you how much they're asking for coming up. And a new plan this morning to help keep tainted toys away from your kids. The government says they're going to be doing more testing and more auditing, and that that will make a difference.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a really good development which will go a long way to assuring that products that are imported into this country are safe.


CHETRY: AMERICAN MORNING's Greg Hunter checks it out for us. He's looking out for you ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING. John Roberts together with Kiran Chetry. Thanks for being with us.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: We woke up to the news that it's the end of an era in Cuba. 49 years and 49 days after seizing power, Fidel Castro gives it up. He says he is resigning as Cuba's President. The news comes overnight in a letter published online by Cuba's official news agency. Castro saying that he will not accept another term as president when Cuba's newly elected parliament meets Sunday. He is 81 years old and has been plagued with health problems over the past few years. His younger brother and designated successor, 76-year-old Raul Castro has been acting president since 2006 when Fidel had emergency surgery. Cuban lawmakers are expected to nominate Raul to succeed his brother.

Senator Mel Martinez was born in Cuba. He came to Florida when he was 15 years old. Thanks to a program by the Catholic Church that helped more than 14,000 children escape communist Cuba. Senator Martinez joins us from now from Orlando. Thanks for being with us this morning, Senator. First your reaction to this news that Fidel Castro is resigning.

SEN. MEL MARTINEZ (R), FLORIDA: Well, you know, I remember one morning waking up in 1959 on January 1st with the news that he had taken power. Interesting that in all that interim, almost 50 years, no one ever elected him to office. It's a good day for the Cuban people. They are no longer ruled by a ruthless dictator. The real question is how do we hope for a better day for the people of Cuba so that they can elect their own leader. So that they can have the freedom to frankly see on the Internet that he had resigned that Cuban people are not allowed to freely access the Internet. So, it's kind of ironic he would put his resignation on the Internet which is not available to the average Cuban.

CHETRY: You just said -- that is interesting definitely. And you also just said that Cuba is not ruled by a ruthless dictator, so Raul is not?

MARTINEZ: Well, no, Cuba continues to be, but at least we have one is down and perhaps one to go. The real issue of what I'm trying to say is that it's time for Cuba to have change. It is time for the Cuban people to have the opportunity to elect their own leaders in a free and open forum. It is what just every other country in the world just about does, why shouldn't the Cuban people have that opportunity, have that right. So, today as we look forward to the future, we should be thinking about how do we get away from rule by dictator, and one dictator passing power to another aging dictator and how do we move forward to the Cuban people having the opportunity for a better day, for a better life, and not only for democracy but just for the simple things of life, the opportunity to travel freely within their country, the opportunity to choose a job, the opportunity to have an economic system that would allow them to have the kind of prosperity that every father and mother want for their children.

CHETRY: So how does that happen? Is there an opportunity here that the U.S. can seize upon to maybe change policy towards Cuba?

MARTINEZ: Well, I think the initial change has to come from the Cuban government and the way they treat the Cuban people. I think that's a first. If we saw some difference, some change by new leaders, I have no hope that Raul Castro who has been frankly the older brother's enforcer through most of the time that they have been in power, will be the kind of agent of change that Cuba needs today. What I think will happen is we'll see hopefully in the future a new set of leaders that will come with new ideas and that will be a hopeful day for the Cuban people.

CHETRY: You have endorsed John McCain for president, and when you did that about a month ago you said "he's going to be Castro's worst nightmare." How does who becomes our next president affect what happens with Cuba down the road?

MARTINEZ: Well, my hope would be that we will have a consistent foreign policy on Cuba, one that continues to insist that the Cuban people treat these people with decency. And that the most minimal semblance of human rights be observed by the Cuban government towards its own people. The fact is I think John McCain will be a strong president as it relates to Cuba or any other dictatorship around the world. What we don't need is to frankly coddle dictators. We need to have a strong America, one that stands up for human rights around the world and continues to be that beacon of hope that America has been, as it was for me. You know, as I was struggling as a young person, America was beacon of hope. It has been for thousands of oppressed people around the world and it continues to be the day. And my hope is that the next president will continue to lead that kind of America. I think John McCain will.

CHETRY: And you see it everywhere, I mean, even today people who have relatives in Cuba are making cell phone calls to their relatives, have you heard this? Have you heard this? I think there's a lot of hope out there, but, you know, Senator, whether or not that is able to change with just his brother taking over still remains to be seen it seems.

MARTINEZ: Absolutely. Today is not the ultimate day of change. It's the beginning of a process hopefully that will lead to change, to real change. And you know, Kiran, I'm on CNN, I do hope that you will, that CNN will take the special responsibility that they have being the only news bureau in Havana, there's a reason for that. And frankly the fact of the matter is, not many others are not allowed in. So, I hope CNN will get outside of Havana and talk to the dissidents, talk to the people that the Cuban government does not want you talking to so their voices can be heard.

Recently, at a university gathering, a young man, Ricardo Alarcon, who heads the fake parliament that they have and asked why can't we access the Internet, why can't we go to hotels like foreign tourists get to visit? Why can't we have the kinds of freedoms that other people seem to enjoy? And it is those kinds of opportunities that I hope will get on the air so that the people of the world can see that Cuba is an oppressed land, and one in which there is hope for freedom and that there are people within the country, a very strong and growing dissident movement, people who are hoping for a better future, just like the eastern Europeans did.

CHETRY: And you're right, CNN does have the only news bureau permanently stationed there in Havana, and they will certainly be asking these questions today. Senator Mel Martinez, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

MARTINEZ: Good to be with you.

ROBERTS: Also new this morning, early voting returns in Pakistan could spell trouble for President Pervez Musharraf. His party has conceded defeat in parliamentary elections. Former Prime Minister's Benazir Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party is in the lead. Musharraf has been a key U.S. ally in the war on terror but his popularity plummeted last year after imposed emergency rule and jailed political opponents.

The U.S. Air Force says it needs more money fast. Air Force officials say jet fighters, bombers and other aircraft are getting old and expensive replacements are needed now. President Bush has proposed $117 billion for the Air Force in 2009. The Air Force says an extra 20 billion would help.

Toys made with lead paint, even asbestos, more worries for parents. Independent tests on one toy showed it contained asbestos, so why hasn't it been recalled everywhere? That's something our Greg Hunter has been asking. He's looking out for you this morning.

And a race around the world takes a dangerous turn. A team of 10 left stranded on the high seas and a frantic rush to rescue the crew. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: Turning now to the race for the White House, 56 republican delegates are up for grabs today in the Wisconsin and Washington state primaries. John McCain is closing in on the nomination and got a major endorsement yesterday from former President George Bush. But Mike Huckabee refuses to quit the GOP race despite near impossible odds against him. He says his supporters are calling for him to stay in.

On the democratic side a total of 94 delegates are at stake for Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. 74 of them in Wisconsin. Obama leads Clinton in the delegate count, 1,262 to 1,213. Clinton and Obama go head to head right here on CNN on Thursday night. Live from the University of Texas in Austin, that's Thursday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

And our nonstop political coverage carries on with today's edition of "Ballot Bowl," ahead at noon. And catch all the results at primetime tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern in the CNN "Election Center."

CHETRY: And a shot this morning of the Statue of Liberty. Right now, it is pretty cold, 37 degrees outside, right now. Yesterday it felt a lot warmer and wetter at this time. Rob Marciano is at the weather update desk tracking the extreme weather for us. I can't complain though, northern North Dakota looking at a high of negative 10 degrees today.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Exactly. That's what I like to hear from you, Kiran. You don't want to complain. You don't have the right to complain. Temperatures yesterday almost in the 60s. Well, you are getting back to reality. There's even more cold air coming your way. So, here you go. A minus 8 is what it actually is in Minneapolis. With the wind, it feels a lot colder than that. So, got some cold air coming down. Lake-effect snow machine in place here. We could see a foot or more in spots across Watertown back through Buffalo. The usual spots here as those cold winds come across Erie and Ontario. We're already starting to see some of those lake effect snow bands fire up to the south of Buffalo.

Also, just south of Grand Rapids towards Kalamazoo, coming off of Lake Michigan, some lake-effect snow is expected today. So, that will continue. Some, a little bit of snow across parts of Tennessee this morning, maybe an inch or a dusting from Nashville back towards Jackson. Tornado ravage actually there so that's a, wouldn't want too much to pile up but it shouldn't be too bad. All right. Getting out to the polls in parts of Wisconsin today, the east side will be cold but dry. The west side will be cold with a little bit of snow. Temperatures not getting out of the teens for the best opportunity there. Upper 40s to lower 50s across Washington state. Then Hawaii looking pretty nice, mid to upper 70s, partly sunny skies. Kiran, after seeing that, I supposed you want to complain? No?

CHETRY: No, I'm happy for Suzanne Malveaux. She's there enjoying herself, covering the race there.

MARCIANO: And you think I get the boondoggles. That's the McDaddy right there.

CHETRY: She's going to stay there until every last vote is counted, until every single person is accounted for. She may not leave until April. Rob, thanks.

MARCIANO: All right. See you. ROBERTS: It may take months. A race around the world takes a dangerous turn. A team of ten on the high seas a frantic rush to their rescue. That's coming up.

Plus, protecting your kids from tainted toys out of your home. If a toy tests positive for asbestos, why hasn't it been recalled? Our Greg Hunter is looking out for you. Next on AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: Forty-six minutes after the hour. We continue to follow the breaking news out of Cuba this morning. Fidel Castro stepping down as president and commander-in-chief, nearly half a century after ceasing power in an armed revolution. In a letter appearing in official state media, Castro says he will not accept a new term when the parliament meets on Sunday.

Castro says he wishes he could serve until his last breath but it's more than he is physically able to offer. The 81-year-old Castro handed power over to his 76-year-old brother Raul back in 2006 when he had emergency intestinal surgery. Since then, he has been seen only in photos and on video tape. Raul Castro is expected to be nominated by the newly elected Cuban national assembly on Sunday. We'll have a live report from Havana ad little Havana in Miami, coming up at the top of the hour. But right now, let's turn it over to Kiran.

CHETRY: Thanks, John. There's a new plan this morning to try to keep tainted toys off of store shelves and out of your home. The toy industry says it is launching a program that provides uniform testing, as well as auditing factories and more intense scrutiny of individual toys.


NANCY NORD, CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION: This is a really good development which will go a long way to assuring that products that are imported into this country are safe.


CHETRY: The CPSC has been under fire since last year when an astonishing 25 million toys were recalled. Safety advocates say in many cases the CPSC failed to act fast enough and some point to a product like this one, it's the CSI Fingerprint Kit. There it is. It's only been recalled in one state, even after an independent group found asbestos in it. It's a story that Greg Hunter has been following for us for months. He's looking out for you with the new developments this morning. Only one state?

GREG HUNTER, CNN, CORRESPONDENT: Only one state. It's been found by two different organizations. I tell you, this is outrageous. Now, the company has not recalled this but they stopped selling it, and there's no nationwide recall for this toy, and it's still in thousands of American homes. We caught up with one viewer who contacted us who has a really good reason. He asked why it's it's not recalled. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HUNTER (voice-over): Julie is only 35 years old. But she's living on borrowed time.

JULIE GUNDLACH, MESOTHELIOMA PATIENT: I was told basically get your affairs in order.

HUNTER: She is suffering from mesothelioma, an incurable disease her doctors think was caused by exposure to asbestos dust when she was a little girl.

GUNDLACH: My father brought home asbestos dust on his clothes and probably spread it through our house.

HUNTER: Gundlach contacted us after our first report on the CSI toy, an independent group had tested it and found asbestos in the fingerprint dust. She is worried that a child exposed to that dust today could end up like her down the line.

GUNDLACH: The fact that it's a toy is just heinous.

HUNTER: Here is the update. The toy maker decided not to sell the CSI kit any longer but it hasn't done a recall which notifies families to get the already sold toys out of homes. While the toy's licenser, CBS, told us it wants a recall, the toy manufacturer, Planet Toys, doesn't see a need. Planet Toys is not able to issue a recall at this time, the company told CNN, because it maintains the product is safe. But if the consumer wants a refund, they can contact the company.

Only one state, Connecticut, has taken matters into its own hands. Connecticut's commissioner of consumer protection tested 10 kits in labs in New York and Connecticut. Asbestos was found in at least one kit. He's authorized a recall in his state and thinks it should go nationwide.

JERRY FARRELL, JR., CONN. DEPT. OF CONSUMER PROTECTION: The fact that this product is out in homes and other states throughout the nation, something needs to be done about that.

HUNTER: So far, no action from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It says it would be inappropriate to rely on what it calls conflicting results by multiple labs, adding "it has an open investigation on the CSI kit and cannot comment on that matter." Julie Gundlach says that could be a tragic mistake. What would you say to the CPSC?

GUNDLACH: I wonder if their kid plays with that toy.


HUNTER: Gundlach has a rare form of mesothelioma. She looks good and so far, she is responding to treatment. Meanwhile, the asbestos disease awareness organization, who first found, the rare asbestos fiber in this toy is gearing up to do another round of tests on every day items they think may have asbestos in them. And you have to remember that asbestos is not banned. It ends up in products on purpose and in cases like by accident.

CHETRY: I still don't understand though. As you pointed out, it's not banned but the CPSC is not issuing a recall for this as well as the other 49 states. Why is asbestos still allowed to be in every day products if any amount is considered unsafe.

HUNTER: Well, industry wants to use it and they try to ban it back in the early, late 80s, early 90s. And the industry wants to use it. So they got their way, they try to ban it. It is not banned. That's what most people think. They think it's banned, it is not. Meanwhile, if you have this toy, listen CBS wants this toy recalled. One state actually found asbestos in at least one of the 10 toys they tested. So, they say, the people at the Consumer Protection in Connecticut, they say be safe. Take this toy, put it inside a bag, a plastic bag and wrap it up and take it away from your kid until this thing gets sorted out. Play it safe with your kids.

CHETRY: All right. You're going to continue to follow this for us.

HUNTER: I will.

CHETRY: You will continue to follow this for us and see if there are any other developments, if any other state come forward like Connecticut and say this needs to be recalled.

HUNTER: A lot of people say this is outrageous that it's still not recalled.

CHETRY: It's outrageous. Greg Hunter, thank you. John.

ROBERTS: It's eight minutes now to the top of the hour. Ten French sailors are safe this morning after a dramatic rescue at sea. They were competing in an around the world yacht race when their boat capsized off the coast of New Zealand. There it is, upside down. Helicopters raced to the scene after they put out a distress signal. Luckily, there were no injuries just some major disappointments but for them the race was over.

Good thing those sailors did not mess with the giant undersea spiders. Check them out. Whoa. Look at this. Scientists say they discovered a number of mysterious creatures off of the murky icy waters of Antarctica including large sea spiders, worms and jellyfish with 18-foot tentacles. It was part of a sea life census taken from depths as low 6,500 feet below sea level.

Breaking news from the business world today, Northwest and Delta Airlines could be on the brink of a merger. A look at how close the deal is to being done and what it could mean for you. That's coming up next.

And a new plan this morning to boost security on the rails, what Amtrak says it's going to do to keep you safe, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Well, add another cook to Martha's kitchen. Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse are closing in on a deal. Today's "Wall Street Journal" reports Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia is paying -- guess how much the Emeril empire is worth -- $50 million in cash and stock for the rights to Emeril's TV shows, his cookbooks, cookware and his Web site.

CHETRY: You know, I never understood why does everyone clap when he says I'm going to add in some garlic. And then everybody in the audience goes --

ROBERTS: We will kick it up a notch.

CHETRY: I mean, we like garlic, but is it to be clapped and applauded every single time you throw it in your food?

ALI VELSHI, CNN, SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: He makes cooking fun. I got to say, he's good.

ROBERTS: So there's a gastronomic merger to you about this morning and now one in the airline industry. Ali Velshi here this morning.

VELSHI: Don't expect better food in the air. We are all looking at this potential merger of Delta and Northwest Airline, the reports are everywhere. We've been following this for a while. The reports everywhere that this deal is imminent, that we might hear about it sometime in the next 24 hours or so. Here's what we are looking at. First of all, take a look at Delta and Northwest where they fly, where their hubs are. This is what is always interesting when you look at a merger of two major airlines. In red, you have the Northwest hubs, in blue you have the Delta hubs. So, Northwest has hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis. Delta has hubs at New York's Kennedy Airport, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Salt Lake City.

Rumors are or reports are that they won't lose any of those hubs, you have to kind of wonder the Memphis and Atlanta hubs and the Detroit and Cincinnati hubs. Now, what will the new airline look like? If there is a new airline, it will be called Delta. That's what we know. The new headquarters of the airline will be in Atlanta, which is Delta's headquarters. The new chief of the airline will be the CEO of Delta.

So, it's sounds much more like a Delta than a Northwest at the moment. Right now KLM and Air France, which is the same company, own a stake of Northwest. They will own a stake of the new company as well. The new company, Delta, will stay part of the Sky Team Alliance. And it will become the world's largest airline by traffic. There are many different ways to measure an airline and we're sort of seeing where this airline will stand. It would certainly be the U.S.'s biggest airline.

Could it hit some problems? We are still waiting to see what the pilots of both airlines say. That would be the biggest obstacle and of course whether the government would allow this. And if we do see this deal, expect to see a deal coming with United and Continental shortly thereafter. So, we are in the days of airline consolidation.

ROBERTS: Northwest gets some new airplanes out of this perhaps?

VELSHI: Yes, quite possibly. Part of the reason is there are too many airlines in the United States. These airlines have to consolidate in order to be more efficient and hopefully get better airlines.

ROBERTS: All right. Ali, thanks. Thank you.

CHETRY: Well, stuck in a cubicle all day long? Why not make the most of it. That's what Terry Weller is doing. She set up a treadmill work station. There it is so she can get exercise while pushing paper. She says she has been walking for a month now and it's been a blast.


TERRI WELLER: Guys are teasing me saying they will check and see how many dents are in the filing cabinet behind me when I forget that I'm on it and slip off of it and go backwards.

CHETRY: She says that she has more energy at the end of the day and while she hasn't lost weight she has lost inches. She says that her clothing is loser now. How about that? Congratulations. Good idea.


CHETRY: The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.


CHETRY (voice-over): Fidel Castro gives up power.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to be a big surprise to a lot of observers.

CHETRY: What now for Cubans from here to Havana?

Next round, polls open in a key battleground. McCain looks for the knockout Clinton tries to keep off the ropes. The most politics in the morning.

All aboard. Years after 9/11 and Madrid, Amtrak rolls out new security rules on this AMERICAN MORNING.


CHETRY: And welcome, possibly some changes coming to the way that you get here from D.C. to New York.

ROBERTS: Oh, yes, yes. Well, just minor ones. Nothing really special. Hey, welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING, February 19th. Big day of news. John Roberts along with Kiran Chetry. And we begin this morning with an end of an ear in Cuba. 49 years and 49 days after seizing power, Fidel Castro resigned as.