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"Exhausted" Fidel Castro rebuts U.S. candidates

HAVANA (Reuters) - Three days after stepping down as Cuban leader, Fidel Castro was back in the fray on Friday rebutting U.S. presidential hopefuls who called for political change in Cuba.

Castro said he was “exhausted” by the “days of tension” leading up to his retirement after 49 years in power and needed a holiday, but could not keep silent over the reactions in the United States to his departure announcement on Tuesday.

Castro said in a newspaper article that the reactions to his retirement, including calls for “liberty” in Cuba, forced him to “open fire” again on his ideological enemies.

“I enjoyed seeing the embarrassing position of all the presidential candidates in the United States,” he wrote in a column published by the Communist Party daily Granma.

“One by one, they felt obliged to proclaim their immediate demands of Cuba so as not to risking losing a single vote,” Castro said.

“‘Change, change, change!’” they cried in chorus. I agree, ‘change!’ but in the United States,” he wrote.

Republican presidential front-runner John McCain took another shot at Castro on Friday, stating bluntly that he hoped the leftist Cuban firebrand would die soon.

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“I hope he has the opportunity to meet Karl Marx very soon,” McCain, who favors tightened sanctions against Castro’s government, told a town-hall style meeting in Indianapolis.

Castro, 81, has not appeared in public since undergoing stomach surgery and handing power temporarily to his brother Raul in July 2006. Cuba’s rubber-stamp National Assembly is expected to name Raul Castro as Cuba’s new leader on Sunday.

ENDURING LEADER

Fidel Castro, the most enduring political leader of the last century, turned Cuba into a one-party state and Soviet ally on the doorstep of the United States after seizing power in an armed revolution in 1959.

He survived the Cold War, CIA assassination attempts and what he calls the U.S. “blockade” during 10 administrations.

U.S. President George W. Bush has tightened the 45-year trade embargo and has rejected easing sanctions or restrictions on travel to Cuba without a transition to democracy. On Tuesday in Rwanda, Bush said Castro’s departure should kick off a period of democratic change in Cuba.

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McCain said on Tuesday that Washington must keep sanctions on Cuba in place until it allows free elections and releases political prisoners. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama suggested they might lift the trade embargo if Fidel Castro’s successor moves toward democracy.

The Democratic candidates differed in a debate on Thursday on how quickly to hold talks with Cuba, with front-runner Obama expressing a willingness to move quickly toward a meeting with Castro’s replacement. Clinton was more cautious, saying Cuba should first make progress improving human rights.

Castro, who will retain veto power as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party, said on Tuesday that he was too weakened by an undisclosed illness to continue as president but would soldier on in the “battle of ideas” writing articles.

Slideshow ( 13 images )

Castro said he had “slept like never before” since deciding to retire. “My conscience was clear and I promised myself a holiday,” he said in the column published on Friday.

“I had planned to stop writing my reflections for at least 10 days, but I could not remain silent for so long. I have to open fire ideologically on them,” he wrote.

Castro, who has been the front-page story in Cuba for half a century, asked that his column be published inside. It appeared on Granma’s page two as a column by “comrade Fidel” and no longer the “Comandante en Jefe.”

(Additional reporting by Jason Szep in Indianapolis, editing by Michael Christie and Sandra Maler)

For special coverage from Reuters on Castro's retirement, see: here

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