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Cuba's Fidel Castro steps down after half a century

HAVANA (Reuters) - Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro stepped down on Tuesday 49 years after taking power in an armed revolution, closing the book on a Cold War career that made him an icon to leftists and a tyrant to his foes.

Castro, 81, who has not appeared in public since undergoing stomach surgery almost 19 months ago, said he would not seek a new term as president or leader of Cuba’s armed forces when the National Assembly meets on Sunday.

His retirement raised expectations for change on the communist island, and calls by Castro’s arch-enemy, the United States, for democracy, but Cuba experts said limited economic reforms were more likely than swift political transformation.

“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 the Council of State and commander-in-chief,” Castro said in a statement published in the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who has tightened the decades-old economic embargo against Castro’s government, said his retirement should begin a democratic transition.

“Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections. And I mean free and I mean fair,” Bush said in Rwanda during a tour of Africa.

Cuba’s National Assembly, a rubber-stamp legislature, is expected to nominate Castro’s brother and designated successor Raul Castro as president. The 76-year-old defense minister has been running the country since emergency intestinal surgery forced his older brother to delegate power on July 31, 2006.

Raul Castro has promoted more open debate about the failings of Cuba’s state-run economy, but he is unlikely to make bold political changes to the one-party state. Fidel Castro will remain influential as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

“This is a crucial moment. Cuba wants change, the people want change,” said Oswaldo Paya, Cuba’s best-known dissident.

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Cubans on the quiet streets of Havana reacted without surprise, some with sadness, to Castro’s retirement, first announced on Granma’s Web site in the middle of the night.

“Everyone knew for a while that he would not come back. The people got used to his absence,” said Roberto, a self-employed Cuban who did not want to be fully named.

“I don’t know what to say. I just want to leave. This system cannot continue,” said Alexis, a garbage collector.

“The Revolution will continue. Fidel resigned in time. It is a wise decision. He let Cubans get used to his absence for 18 months,” said Lazaro, a building administrator sweeping a lobby in slippers. He said the only economically viable institution in Cuba was the armed forces run by Raul Castro and hoped their efficiency would spill over into the rest of the economy.

“His body gave up after so many years fighting for social justice and the independence of Cuba from American control,” said a saddened psychology professor who identified himself simply as Dr. Alvizu.

In Miami, the heartland of exiled opposition to the Castro brothers, reaction was subdued.

“It’s very good that Fidel resigns. But if Fidel dies, it’s better,” said Juan Acosta, a Cuban who left the Caribbean island in 1980, as he stopped to buy a newspaper on Calle Ocho, the main street in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

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The Democratic hopefuls vying to represent their party in the November U.S. election, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, suggested they might lift the trade embargo if Cuba pursued democratic reforms. Republican front-runner John McCain said the United States must keep up the pressure.

European governments said Castro’s retirement could open the door to democratic change.

“Fidel Castro’s resignation is the end of an era that started with freedom and ended with oppression,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

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The charismatic Castro led the bearded and cigar-chomping guerrillas who swept down from the mountains of eastern Cuba to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

He then turned Cuba into a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and became the world’s longest-serving head of state, barring monarchs.

Castro survived a CIA-backed invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, as well as assassination attempts, the continuing U.S. trade embargo, and an economic crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of Soviet bloc communism.

He played a role in taking the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 when he let Moscow put ballistic missiles in Cuba, leading to a 13-day stand-off between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Famous for long speeches delivered in green military fatigues, Castro is admired in the Third World for standing up to the United States but considered by his opponents a dictator who suppressed freedom and wrecked Cuba’s economy.

Castro was close to death in 2006 and has looked gaunt and frail in the few videotapes of him broadcast since his surgery, but Cuba’s leadership has showed no sign of collapse.

“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 Tuesday’s statement. He will continue to write his newspaper columns.

“This is not my farewell to you. My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas ... It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard.”

Frank Mora, a political scientist at the National War College in Washington, said Castro’s successors will likely be forced to head down paths he would not approve.

“He will not go into some sunset nor will he become that crazy uncle in the attic, but they are pushing him up those stairs,” Mora said.

Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, Deborah Charles in Rwanda, and Michael Christie in Miami; Editing by Kieran Murray and Patricia Zengerle