Even though Cuban President Fidel Castro appears to be recovering from intestinal surgery, his illness has forced the Cuban people to face the fact of his mortality. While the strongman’s younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, has assumed power in his absence, there is little likelihood of a dynasty ruling the island 150 km off the Florida coast. Key to Cuba’s future is its relations with the United States. A light diplomatic touch is required: A heavy-handed attempt by Washington to intervene in Cuban politics could very well strengthen the Communist Party bureaucracy that the world would like to see weakened.

President Castro has ruled Cuba with an iron fist since he seized power in 1959. He has tolerated no dissent, either within his party or from the outside. His brother has been at his side since the revolution first began with the attack on a military facility in 1953. Today he is the minister of defense and the president’s constitutionally designated successor.

President Castro is a canny survivor. He has fended off Cuba’s huge neighbor to the north for more than four decades, defeating invasion attempts and dodging assassination plots. He has used U.S. opposition to consolidate his rule, standing firmly atop Cuban nationalism (along with support from other opponents of the U.S., such as the former Soviet Union) as a prop. Indeed, he delights in tweaking Washington. When the U.S. demanded greater freedom for the citizens of Cuba in 1980, he responded by emptying the country’s prisons and mental asylums, and sending tens of thousands of them to the U.S. in what is known today as the Mariel boatlift. Washington’s fear of another exercise in freedom — or the creation of instability that might produce another mass exodus — has tempered its zeal for meddling in Cuban politics.

President Castro’s customary five-hour harangues had given Cubans and the world that feeling that he was not aging. That image was shattered July 31 when Havana announced that he had undergone intestinal surgery and handed power over to his brother while he was recovering. There were fears that the situation was much worse when there were no reports of his condition and neither he nor his brother was seen in public for two weeks. Concerns were assuaged last week when Defense Minister Castro told Cubans that his brother was recovering. Video of him with visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was released.

Nevertheless, the photos were a reminder that President Castro is not immortal after all and have forced the Cuban people to consider life after his death. His immediate successor would be his brother, reputed to be both the “muscle” for the regime as well as a supporter of moderate economic reforms, like those in China. Unlike the president, who has been an implacable foe of private enterprise, Defense Minister Castro introduced Western management practices in the armed forces, which run the country’s most efficient and profitable companies.

But the defense minister is 75 (the president is 80) and does not have his brother’s charisma. The survival of the regime thus rests on the shoulders of the next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, President Castro has not permitted a third person to rise through the hierarchy to emerge as a possible successor — or rival — to himself or his brother. As a result, a collective leadership is most likely to rule, although a power struggle cannot be ruled out. The military is also likely to take on a greater role in the post-Castro transition.

The most important issue for that government will be its relationship with the U.S. Washington appears to have recognized that attempts to intervene in Cuban politics have only strengthened President Castro’s hand. The passing of the generation of Cubans who fled the revolution has eliminated the most strident U.S. opponents of the regime and helped moderate U.S. policy.

Last week, Defense Minister Castro noted that Cuba was willing “to go out in search of peace.” Any talks, however, he repeated, must respect Cuban sovereignty. Washington denied that it has any intention of invading the island; nor is it in any position to do so. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the U.S. role “will be to help the Cuban people, when the time comes, to have a peaceful and stable democratic transition.” Until then, economic sanctions remain in place and Washington continues to fund the regime’s opponents.

Even if President Castro recovers and reassumes power, the regime must prepare for a transition. The rest of the world should, too. That means polishing the carrots that can be used to encourage political and economic reform. Those efforts must be subtle, however, as overt interference in Cuban politics will only strengthen the hand of nationalists and hardliners who benefit from Cuba’s relative isolation in the world. The goal should be to help better the lives of the 11 million Cuban people who have known little freedom or prosperity since the revolution of 1959.

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