THE MAN WHO NEARLY STARTED WORLD WAR III; Despicable Despot: Cuban Leader Fidel Castro. Inset, with Soviet Ally Nikita Khrushchev in 1963

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Byline: Anthony Daniels

FIDEL CASTRO announced his retirement yesterday after nearly 50 years asCuba's Communist dictator prompting speculation that he was close to death.

His decision ends an era in which the 81-year-old Leftist icon survived morethan 600 CIA-backed assassination attempts, frustrated ten U.S. presidents andbrought the world to the brink of nuclear war with the 1962 Cuban missilecrisis.

Castro, who swept to power in 1959 with Che Guevara fighting by his side, wasthe world's longest-serving head of state. He has not appeared in public for 19months since undergoing stomach surgery amid rumours of cancer. His brotherRaul, 76, the defence minister, has been running the country since July 2006.The National Assembly is expected to rubberstamp Raul as the new president onSunday..

FOR Cuba, the end of Fidel Castro's rule came 50 years too late. He seizedpower in a relatively prosperous country, which was then as wealthy as Italy,and left it yesterdaynearly half a century laterin ruins, with its income per head much less than a tenth of Italy's.

Seventy per cent of the Cuban population has known no other rule than his, andno political system other than that of this capricious and verbosedictatorship.

Castro has bequeathed a political and economic legacy that will take manydecades and much wisdom to overcome. But his name is inscribed on the historyof the 20th century, from which it can, unfortunately, never be erased.

Fidel Castro has more web pages devoted to him on the internet than Lenin,Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung combined. At 55,000,000 such pages, he has only 10 percent fewer than Adolf Hitler.

If his goal was to achieve mythical status in his own lifetime, he succeeded.

No other Latin American dictatorand Latin America has known a fewever achieved a fraction of his world-fame or notoriety.

According to a story Castro himself told, he wanted to go to school when he wasseven years old. His father, Angel, would not let him, and so the young Fidelthreatened to burn down his parents' house. His father gave in, and sent him toschool.

The story doesn't have the ring of truth. Castro's father, after all, was atough Spanish immigrant to Cuba who arrived in the country as a pennilesssoldier, and ended up a millionaire, owning 26,000 acres, and who was thereforenot the kind of man to be intimidated by a mere child.

But Castro evidently believed the story reflected well on his own character. AsI was to discover when I visited Cuba at length to research a book onCommunism, he was his own greatest admirer.

True or not, the story captures an essential truth about Castro: for him, hisego was more important than the fate of anything in the world, or indeed of theentire world.

In 1962, he was furious with Nikita Khrushchev when, without consulting him,the Soviet leader negotiated an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis with PresidentKennedy.

CASTRO had permitted the Soviet Union to install nuclear missiles on theisland, just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, which was bound to alarm theUnited States.

Castro would have preferred a nuclear war to a compromise solution, even thoughit would have meant the death of every last Cuban.

As he put it in a speech three years later: 'The Cuban people did not hesitateto face the dangers of thermo-nuclear war, of a nuclear attack against us.' Itgoes without saying that Castro did not invite the Cuban people to express anopinion on the matter of their own total incineration by nuclear bombs.

The Romans said: 'Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.' Castro, ineffect, said: 'Let the world end, so long as I play an important part in it.'His willingness to approve an apocalypse for his own people was paralleled onlyby that of Hitler.

When the Russians ignored Castro in their negotiations with the Americans, hefelt deeply humiliated by his own insignificance in the larger scheme ofthings. …