WASHINGTON — World reaction to Fidel Castro's decision to resign Cuba's presidency split Tuesday, with many European nations urging Cuba to seek democratic reforms while most Latin American nations remained silent or non-committal.
The Bush administration has long lobbied third countries to press Cuba to enact democratic reforms. Havana usually reacts angrily to such calls, saying they constitute meddling in its internal affairs.
Peru was one of the few Latin American nations to openly urge a democratic transition Tuesday, while Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra, whose leftist-ruled country provides massive subsidies to Cuba, said the island was entering into a "new process in its revolutionary structure."
In London, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Castro's imminent retirement is "an opportunity to make progress toward a peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy" and could lead "to more respect for human rights and the release of political prisoners."
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who sparked a controversy last year by initiating a policy of constructive engagement with Cuba, was more cautious, avoiding the "democracy" word and saying that his country stood ready "to help in whatever way possible."
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who considers himself a friend of Castro and was in Havana last month, called the Cuban leader "one of the great icons of humanity's history," according to the Oglobo.com website.
Peruvian Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo was one of the first Latin American leaders to call on Cuba to embark on a democratic path. "One must hope that the process of transferring power is peaceful," he told a local radio station.
Chile avoided mentioning a democratic transition. Presidential spokesman Francisco Vidal said that after more than 40 years, Cuba has "completed a stage" and that the Chilean government would respect whatever the Cuban people decided.
Officials from Italy, Germany, France, Holland and Sweden joined the United States in urging Cuba to take a democratic path.
"There is an acceptance or an understanding that Cuba is entering either a period of time in which the pressures and the expectations for change are building," said Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America. "This expectation is for Cuba to move towards democracy, with some of the statements being more sharp and precise."
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Castro's withdrawal "marks the end of an era that began with high hopes but ended with oppression."
The Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, called for a "peaceful transition to a democratic society."
China's foreign ministry said the country would continue friendly ties with Cuba and called Castro an "old friend."
Russia's Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, praised Castro's decision as a brave one that was "guided by the interests of his country and his people."
Human rights groups also issued strongly worded statements.
Human Rights Watch said Castro's "abusive machinery" was still intact, and Amnesty International demanded Cuba guarantee basic rights of its citizens, allow the United Nations and other international human rights watchdogs to visit the island and release political prisoners.
Cuba on Monday released four prisoners designated by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience, something the group said was a "positive step" but warned that 58 more were still in jail. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty called on the United States to lift the embargo on Cuba.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is to visit Cuba on Wednesday. It what will be the first high-ranking international visitor to go to Havana following Fidel Castro's announcement.