HAVANA (Reuters) - 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 after undergoing stomach surgery, said in a message to the communist nation 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 honour 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. Raul Castro has been running the country since emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding forced Castro to delegate power on July 31, 2006.
Cubans on the empty streets of Havana were not surprised by his retirement.
"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.
In a deserted Revolution Square, site of many hours-long speeches by Castro to massive crowds, a lone soldier stood guard at government headquarters and the city was calm.
The title of "Comandante en Jefe" or commander-in-chief, was created for Castro in 1958 as overall leader of the guerrilla forces that swept down from the mountains of eastern Cuba to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
His retirement draws the curtain on a political career that spanned the Cold War and survived U.S. enmity, assassination plots by the CIA and the demise of Soviet bloc 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.
"It's incredible that 50 years of dictatorship can be accepted by Cubans and will continue to be accepted," said Ninoska Perez of the anti-Castro Miami-based exile organization, the Cuban Liberty Council.
Perez said Castro's retirement did not mean anything would change in Cuba and the news was unlikely to bring cheer to Cuban exiles waiting for an end to communism in their homeland and an opportunity to return.
"The real celebration will be when he (Castro) can no longer write about it," she said.
Castro's illness and departure from Cuba's helm have raised doubts about the future of the one-party 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.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in Rwanda while on a trip to Africa, had no immediate comment on Castro's plans to step down, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Johndroe said "the president was informed" about the developments with Castro and that he would receive a briefing later. Washington has maintained a more than four-decades long economic embargo against Cuba to try to isolate Castro.
Castro has been seen only in pictures and video film since he handed over power provisionally to his brother, looking gaunt and frail. His health improved enough a year ago to allow him to reestablish a public presence by 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 in Tuesday's message.
Castro could remain politically influential as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party and elder statesman.
Raul Castro, Cuba's long-standing defence 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.
"It was logical for Fidel to quit because he has been saying that he is not well," said a musician leaving a cabaret. "But nothing will change until the government makes economic reforms that Cuba needs," he said.
I bet that poor Terry will be crying into his porridge when he finds out.