Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said on Tuesday that he will not return to lead the country as president or commander-in-chief, retiring as head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution.
Castro, 81, who has not appeared in public for almost 19 months, said in a statement to the country that he would not seek a new presidential term when the National Assembly meets on February 24.
"To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honor in recent days of electing me a member of parliament ... I communicate to you that I will not aspire to or accept -- I repeat not aspire to or accept -- the positions of President of Council of State and Commander in Chief," Castro said in the statement published on the Web site of the Communist Party's Granma newspaper.
The National Assembly or legislature is expected to nominate his brother and designated successor Raul Castro, 76, as president. The younger brother has been running the country since emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding forced Castro to delegate power July 31, 2006.
The title of "Comandante en Jefe" or commander-in-chief, was created for Castro in 1958 as supreme leader of the guerrilla forces that swept down from the mountains of eastern Cuba to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Castro's retirement draws the curtain on a political career that spanned the Cold War and survived U.S. enmity, CIA assassination attempts and the demise of Soviet Communism.
A charismatic leader famous for his long speeches delivered in his green military fatigues, Castro is admired in the Third World for standing up to the United States but considered by his opponents a tyrant who suppressed freedom.
His illness and departure from Cuba's helm have raised doubts about the future of the Western Hemisphere's only communist state.
"Fortunately, our Revolution can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the process," Castro said in his statement.
"They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement," he said.
The streets of Havana were empty and news of Castro's retirement from politics had not reached Cubans yet by radio or the printed edition of Granma.
"It was logical for Fidel to quit because he has been saying that he is not well," said a musician who was leaving a cabaret. "But nothing will change until the government makes the economic reforms that Cuba needs," he said.
President George W. Bush, in Rwanda as part of a trip to Africa, had no immediate comment on Castro's plans to step down, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said on Tuesday.
Castro has only been seen in pictures since then, looking gaunt and frail, though his health improved enough a year ago to allow him to keep in the public mind writing reams of articles published by Cuba's state press.
"This is not my farewell to you. My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to write under the heading of 'Reflections by comrade Fidel.' It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I shall be careful," Castro said.
Castro could remain politically influential as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party and elder statesman.
Raul Castro, Cuba's long-standing defense minister, has run raised expectations of economic reforms to improve the daily lot of Cubans since standing in for his brother, but he has yet to deliver.
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