Marty Lederhandler / File Photo / AP
Yet Castro has survived the assassination attempts, a tightening U.S.
trade embargo, economic crises and even the fall of his patrons in the
Through 10 U.S. administrations, Castro's government has remained in place.
Now, even at the epochal moment of his departure, U.S. hopes for
dramatic change are muted. Limited steps toward economic liberalization
are possible, but no one is forecasting the advent of Western-style
political freedoms anytime soon.
Instead, the approaching changes may at best resemble Chinese economic
reforms, except on a tiny, Cuban scale.
Forecasts of Castro's demise "have been a pipe dream from the beginning,
and they still are," said Wayne S. Smith, a former U.S. State Department
official. "This government has been far more durable, and more flexible,
than people here gave him credit for."
As a result, the authoritarian cast of Fidelismo could remain in place
for years to come, whether U.S. policymakers stick with harsh measures
or turn to engagement.
Given the political clout of thousands of anti-Castro Cuban Americans,
rapid changes in the U.S. embargo are unlikely, especially in an
election year. Whether the next administration alters that stance
depends in large part on political changes in Cuba.
Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential contender who favors
engagement with U.S. adversaries, said Tuesday that he would like to
ease the embargo against Cuba, but demanded the release of political
prisoners. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton called for a "transition to
democracy" in Cuba.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential front-runner, welcomed
Castro's resignation but said it was "nearly a half century overdue."
The rise of Castro, the son of a Spanish immigrant, was a challenge to
Washington from the beginning. The Caribbean island symbolized the
threatening proximity of revolution, and when Castro allowed Russian
missiles on his territory during the height of the Cold War, it brought
the United States as close as it has ever come to nuclear war.
One U.S. president after another tried to rid himself of Castro through
invasion, assassination and economic blockade. The current U.S. policy
is built around the tough Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which codified the
U.S. trade and travel embargo, penalizes foreign countries that invest
in Cuba and prohibited normalization of relations as long as Castro or
his brother Raul are in charge.
U.S. officials have long predicted that Castro's system would collapse
out of economic weakness, or falter because of its heavy dependence on
the charismatic personality of one man.
But Castro showed his flexibility in the early 1990s when Cuba faced its
greatest crisis, in the fracturing of the Soviet Union. Its passing
deprived Havana of more than $4 billion a year in subsidies, as well as
a world ideology that lent the regime importance among its citizens and
special status in the hemisphere.
"People thought it was the end for Cuba," said Peter DeShazo, a former
U.S. State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington. In 1993, a Miami journalist, Andres
Oppenheimer, visited Cuba and wrote a book titled "Castro's Final Hour."
But Castro found a way to keep his government together. He opened his
economy, to a limited extent, to foreign investment, including joint
ventures and a flourishing tourism trade that brought the cash of
thousands of Europeans and Latin Americans.
In the last few years, Castro has found an important new partner in
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who shows his admiration for Castro by
subsidizing the island with 56,000 barrels of oil a day.
As Castro approached his 81st year, U.S. leaders and regime critics were
watching for signs of mortality. And when, in July 2006, Castro
temporarily turned over power to Raul because of an intestinal illness,
many were overjoyed.
Castro's Cuban American foes in Miami danced in the streets, and some
said in interviews that they were debating whether to return to the
island immediately to reclaim their lost property or to wait a few
weeks, Smith, the former State Department official, remembered.
But Castro survived, and it became clear that turning over power to Raul
was part of a long-laid script for a gradual shift to minimize the
chances of political upheaval. Castro, who had one of the longest
tenures as head of state, took greater care than many other
authoritarian leaders to try to perpetuate what he had created.
And it is clear that Fidel Castro will be maintaining at least a
spiritual presence in the government as it takes a new shape, probably
around younger leaders. He remains Communist Party chief, a member of
the parliament, and probably will be elected Sunday to the 31-member
Council of State.
Daniel P. Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American
Dialogue, a research group in Washington, said Castro's regime has
proved more durable than expected for several reasons.
It had more staying power because it grew out of a domestic revolution,
unlike those, for example, in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, he said.
Castro has been fortunate to find wealthy international allies. And the
U.S. economic embargo, by isolating Cubans and fostering the sense that
the country was under attack, "probably prolonged its life," Erikson said.
Although Cuba has many notable dissidents, some analysts believe that it
may be unrealistic to expect that they are now likely to begin
grass-roots political ferment that will force change. The leaders of the
dissidents have not been pushing for change since Castro became ill.
Some of the dissidents spoke hopefully Tuesday, but others were cautious
about what comes next.
Vladimiro Roca, a former political prisoner, was quoted by Agence
France-Presse saying that Castro "has done the most sensible thing." But
he said that "in any case, during a year and a half without Fidel, there
have been no changes, and now there are going to be no changes either."