Ensconced in his Communist-run island, Castro has weathered ten American presidents and their economic embargo against him. He has outlasted by almost two decades the cold war and his former sponsor, the
Soviet Unionlong enough to benefit from a new era of anti-Americanism in which Hugo Chvez in oil-rich Venezuela has come to his aid. And now, at last, he has stepped down as Cubas president, for reasons of age and ill-health, but of his own volition and with what he clearly hopes will be an orderly succession that preserves his revolution.
He has been replaced by his brother, Ral, who has been running the government since Fidel underwent abdominal surgery in July 2006. Ral Castro has given many signals that he intends to restart reforms that in the mid-1990s introduced some market mechanisms into the sclerotic, centrally planned economy. Yet reform will at first be slownot least because while Fidel remains alive, he will have something of a veto over change.
Look a bit further ahead, and two broad scenarios seem possible in Cuba. The first is one in which the Communist Party oversees the introduction of capitalism while retaining political controlin the mould of China, Vietnam or, closer to home, Mexico in the heyday of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. That seems to be the route favoured by senior figures in the regime, few of whom show any signs of being closet democrats. The other scenario is the one long dreamed of in Miami and in Washington, of the regimes sudden collapse and, it is assumed with a confidence many Iraqis may find worryingly familiar, a swift move to liberal democracy.
The first prospect stems from the notion that Cuba is somehow differentits people wont want democracy. The second argues that the only exceptional thing is Mr Castro: remove his evil genius and the regime will crumble. In fact, the truth seems somewhere in between. To get a sense of what mightand shouldhappen, start by cutting through the fog of propaganda surrounding Fidel himself.
The man and the myth
Apart from its tropical ambience, Cuban Communism always differed from that of Eastern Europe in being the product of a national revolution, not of foreign conquest. Mr Castro was inspired first and foremost by his countrys frustrated search for nationhood. As an island on the doorstep of the 20th centurys superpower, Cubas sad history was moulded by geography. Insularity meant that Spanish colonial rule survived far longer there; then came subjection to the United States as a neo-colony and misrule by a string of corrupt strongmen.
Having won power, Mr Castro had no intention of giving it up. It was not the American trade embargo that pushed him into the arms of the Soviet Union; he went willingly. Yet the embargo, the CIA-organised invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the agencys repeated assassination attempts against him all gave him the perfectif falsejustification for dictatorship.
Mr Castros supporters point out that he used his power to give Cubans world-class health and education services, at least until the Soviet subsidies dried up. Those achievements were genuine, but often exaggerated. In 1959 Cuba was already one of the five leading countries in Latin America on a variety of socio-economic indicators. And along with the schools and clinics came the dreary economic failures of central planning, the absence of political freedom and a police state. Cuba is outranked today in the UN human-development index by democracies such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica, while Mexico is not far behind.
So forget the cigars and the posters: Cubans have had a rotten deal from a miserable regimeand they know it. Scratch the surface of the regimes propaganda, and profound discontent wells up. But that does not mean they will automatically push out the Castros. Sadly, unlike much of South America, the island has no democratic tradition to speak of. Two-thirds of Cubans have known no ruler other than Fidel. They may yearn for change but they also fear it: although their lives are poor, they are also peaceful. If Fidels successors fix the economy, Cubans may acquiesce in their rule.
That, however, is a big if. Ral lacks his brothers charisma and it is not clear how he will deliver the structural and conceptual changes he admits the economy needs. Without reform, wages and productivity will remain miserable; but reforms would bring more inequalities and resentments as well as benefits. That is why Ral is proceeding with great caution.
Raise the embargo and help change through
The question now is a familiar one: whether to keep pressure on a dysfunctional dictatorship in the hope of dispatching the Castros quickly, or to try to lure Ral forward by dropping Americas trade embargo. The first option has its logic: why let a repressive, demeaning system modernise itself slowly But there are more powerful reasons to drop the embargo now.
To begin with, a policy that has failed to hurt the Castros for four decades is unlikely to work now. America risks leaving the field to Mr Chvez, who wants Venezuela to become more like Cuba rather than the other way around (he is already giving Cuba fast internet access because America wont). And what if pressure worked The result at the moment could be chaos and violence. Cuba needs not just to dismantle Fidels Communism but to construct the state institutions that might underpin capitalist democracy. The country can prosper only if the two Cubasthe entrepreneurial diaspora of 1.5m Cuban-Americans and the 11m on the islandwork together, rather than against each other. But that, too, will take time.
Real change in Cuba will start only after Fidels death. But that is all the more reason for outsiders to make constructive use of his retirement.
He has stubbed out Cubas freedom once; it would be tragic if hatred of him led to more pain.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008