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Fidel's Finale?

When Cuba's dictator was sidelined by illness, Castro's younger brother assumed power. What, if anything, will change?

By Ginger Thompson

Fidel Castro's determination to keep control of Cuba's government is legendary. Two years ago, he refused general anesthesia for surgery to repair a broken knee. Anesthetized from the waist down, Castro remained awake for the three-hour operation. His chief of staff stayed at his side, Castro later said, so they "could attend to numerous important issues." So when it was announced in July that an ailing Castro would temporarily relinquish power to his brother Raul, Cubans—and the world—paid close attention.

The official story was that Castro, Cuba's leader for 47 years, was having intestinal surgery. But the secrecy surrounding his illness led many to think that Castro was dead. Cuban-Americans celebrated in Miami, and Washington feared mass migrations—Cubans trying to flee to the U.S., and Cuban-Americans trying to return home. Cuba watchers wondered if there would be a revolution or a military coup, and Raul Castro mobilized Cuba's armed forces, in case, he said, of an invasion by the U.S.

But Cuba—an island nation of 11 million people, just 90 miles from Florida—has so far remained calm. Instead of intervening, the Bush administration has called on Cubans to take their future into their own hands. There has been no upheaval within the Cuban government; it appears that the political system may not change much, at least for now.

Raul Castro says that his brother, who turned 80 in August, is recuperating. If Fidel dies, however, Cuba's stability may be at higher risk.

Soviet Ally

Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, when he and a band of guerrillas overthrew Cuba's previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista. In 1961, Castro allied Cuba with the Soviet Union, and the U.S. imposed a full trade embargo against Cuba, which is still in effect. That same year, Cuban exiles backed by the U.S. landed at the Bay of Pigs in a doomed attempt to overthrow Castro. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis—during which Soviet missiles were deployed in Cuba—brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.

Soviet aid kept Cuba's economy afloat until the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba went into an economic free fall. While Castro has been credited for some progress in areas like education and health care, in recent years he has intensified the government's repressive policies, and human rights are routinely violated.

News that Castro was even temporarily out of commission triggered mixed emotions in Cuban-American communities. Those who fled Cuba after the revolution have long dreamed of returning. But nearly half a century has gone by; it would be difficult for families to pack up and move to an island their children have never known.

Reynaldo Ulloa, 19, a student at Miami-Dade College, says his father wants to return to Cuba but he has little interest in moving there himself.

"Maybe Fidel is going down, but you never know who's going to take over," says Ulloa. "We live a pretty good life here."

Raul Castro, 75, has led Cuba's military since the revolution. While he lacks Fidel's charisma and political skill, he may have fewer worries about Cuba's economy. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is using his country's oil revenue to prop up the Castro regime, much as the Soviets did, and counter Bush-administration policy in Latin America. Some experts say that Raul might be willing to open up Cuba's economy the way China's and Vietnam's leaders did: allowing some movement toward a free market while the Communist Party maintains strict political control.

Watching & Waiting

Tensions between Castro and the U.S. have lasted through 10 presidencies. Today, the Bush administration says it has plans ready to assist pro-democracy groups in Cuba.

Whether or not Castro fully recuperates, he is unlikely to lead Cuba again with the same intensity as before.

"At a minimum, from now forward, Raul is going to be a senior partner," says Brian Latell, a former Cuba analyst with the C.I.A. "Raul will be calling a lot of the shots, but with a great deal of respect and deference for Fidel."