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Old Man draws out a painful story that should have ended long ago

Fidel Castro resigned 18 months ago, but the world received his official press release Tuesday before dawn.

''I will not aspire nor accept -- I repeat -- I will not aspire nor accept, the charge of President or Commander in Chief,'' he wrote.

For half a century, Fidel has been the master of his narrative, and like all good storytellers he knows how to draw out the moment.

His words -- invoking William Tecumseh Sherman's famous rejection of the Republican candidacy in 1884 -- were neither original nor especially surprising. But in both spirit and delivery, they were faithful to the tragedy-turned-farce of Castro's extended denouement.

Within hours, politicians, pundits and assorted professional ponderers were rushing to comment as if this were really breaking news. Television crews scrambled to be the first to air the shots of the usual four colorful cats at Versailles. And out came the platitudes.

Once again, the old man acted and everyone else was forced to react.

''I view this as a period of transition,'' President Bush said from Rwanda.

A bland statement, itself 18 months too late. But just in case anyone got the wrong idea, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte hurried to assure the world that the U.S. embargo would remain firmly in place.

Infirm and weak, ridiculous in his track suits and dusty slogans, Fidel still proves the superior statesman. His announcement assures that Cuba plays a role in the U.S. presidential race, keeps the focus on his endless goodbye and provokes no new ideas from Washington.

What a pity.

This is a chance to really sit down and debate the next step, not to rehash the same old lines. Thankfully, other leaders seem ready to actually lead. Whereas Bush spoke in generalities, Barack Obama and John McCain urged a more active response.

STEPS WE SHOULD TAKE

''America can and should help hasten the sparking of freedom in Cuba,'' McCain said, though he offered few details.

Obama went so far as to offer something resembling a real proposal: ``If the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change, the United States must be prepared to begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades.''

I would go a step further and say: Let's stop waiting and start acting. It will take a while to unravel the tangled nonsense of the trade embargo. But we can, right now, lift the travel ban for Americans with family in Cuba.

It's an easy first step, and one that polls suggest most Cuban Americans support. Tuesday night, as coincidence has it, the Center for International Policy and the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights had scheduled a conference to demand that restrictions on family travel to Cuba be lifted.

WHAT CUBANS NEED

''We should be sending a message to the Cuban people that we trust they will chart their destinies according to their wishes and desires,'' said Silvia Wilhelm, who directs the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights and helped organize the conference.

The list of what the Cuban government needs to do is very long. The story is an old and painful one, and justice will not come easily or swiftly.

But the beginning of the end was written almost two years ago. And the guy who keeps stealing the headlines is a tired old man whose enduring legacy will be his remarkable ability to ensure that, through nine U.S. presidencies, the collapse of the Soviet Union and several wars, he continued to have the last word.