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Castro retires.

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Ailing revolutionary icon Fidel Castro permanently gave up the Cuban presidency yesterday, ending five decades of ironclad rule of the island

marked by his brash defiance of the United States. In a message published by the online version of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, the 81-year-old Castro said he would not seek the presidency again when it is decided later this week.

A"I neither will aspire to nor will I accept - I repeat - I neither will aspire to nor will I accept, the position of president of the Council of State and commander-in-chief,A" Castro wrote, almost 19 months after undergoing intestinal surgery and handing power temporarily to his brother Raul Castro. A"It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total commitment that I am not in physical condition to offer,A" he said.

Castro did not say who he thought should be his successor as president, though most analysts believe Raul Castro, 76, is the obvious choice. But the elder Castro's reference to a A"middle generationA" suggests that younger leaders such as Vice President Carlos Lage, 56, should not be ruled out. The Cuban Revolution A"also has the middle generation that learned together with us the elements of the complex, almost unknowable art of organising and directing a RevolutionA", Castro wrote, in what could be a hint at leaders to come.

US President George W Bush said yesterday that Fidel Castro's decision to step down should begin a A"democratic transitionA" in Cuba, eventually culminating with free and fair elections. A"I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of democratic transition,A" said Bush, who signalled no change in a half-century of tough US policies towards America's one-party neighbour.

A"Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections. And I mean free, and I mean fair - not these kinds of staged elections that the Castro brothers tried to foist off as being true democracy,A" Bush said, on the road in Rwanda. A guerrilla revolutionary and communist idol, Castro held out against history and turned tiny Cuba into a thorn in the paw of the mighty capitalist United States.

The longest ruling leader in the Americas overthrew Fulgencio Batista to take power in 1959 and kept a tight clamp on dissent at home, imprisoning political opponents. Rights groups put the current number of political prisoners at more than 200. Fidel Castro has said he would never retire from politics and he vowed to continue his editorial writing.

Out of public sight since his surgery, seen only in videos and photos, Castro has often published columns in the Cuban media titled 'Reflections of a commander in chief'. A"I am not saying farewell. I want only to fight as a soldier of ideas. I will continue writing under the title 'Reflections of Comrade Fidel'. I will be one more weapon in the arsenal that you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I will be careful,A" he wrote yesterday.

Castro's message came just five days before a historic session in the National Assembly in which he was up for re-election for another five-yearA mandate. Raul Castro said a month ago that the National Assembly would elect Cuba's next president on February 24, amid speculation that his brother - for the first time in five decades - might not be its choice.

Many speculate Raul Castro may become president permanently or that another regime official might move up the ladder. While Castro appeared to be in better health than a year ago, many Cuba-watchers believed he would never be able to resume the full, wide-ranging powers he used to wield. Few, however, doubt that Fidel will remain influential.

Famed for his rumpled olive fatigues, straggly beard, and the cigars he reluctantly gave up for his health, Castro dodged everything his enemies could throw at him in nearly half a century in power, including assassination plots, a US-backed invasion bid, and a US trade embargo.

A renaissance revolutionaryA

His long-winded political rants are legendary, but Fidel Castro also loved burning the midnight oil, the written word, and, ironically, the passion which unites Cuba and its US foe - baseball. Castro squeezed the maximum out of his almost 50 years in power, set to end this week, getting by on snatched rest, sustained by the passion of his interests, and the revolution he nurtured for nearly half a century. Castro's legendary late-nightsmanship was a source of constant comment by journalists, biographers and the bemused.

For Castro, it was utterly normal to dine into the wee hours, then hold interviews that stretched even later as guests slumped over in their chairs. Some of his closest allies and friends said Castro somehow learned to rest while awake, in a sort of active down-time of chatting, swimming or reading, a passion of his.

A"His devotion to the word is almost magical,A" wrote personal friend Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who said that he was convinced that when Castro is A"tired of conversing, rests by conversing moreA". Castro, pictured below in the 1960s with Argentine guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara, thirsted for knowledge about anything and everything, learning late in life to surf the internet (even as his government controlled access to it).

There are photos of the day when the only Concorde to visit Havana touched down, and Castro headed to the airport to pepper the pilot with questions about the supersonic jet. The youthful Castro of the 1950s was fabled for incessant cigar smoking. When he stubbed out the habit, he was awarded a prize from the World Health Organization.

Something of a gourmand, he collected cooking recipes which according to Garcia Marquez he liked to prepare A"with a sort of scientific rigourA". Meanwhile, Cubans were suffering severe food shortages. A"In my next incarnation I want to be a writer,A" Castro was once quoted as saying. He wrote many short pieces and editorials but his books are mainly compilations of his speeches.

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Publication:7 Days (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Feb 20, 2008
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