WASHINGTON — Speculating about what will happen in Cuba when Fidel Castro passes from the scene is a perennial parlor game in both Washington and Havana. But the question took on new urgency last month when Castro collapsed under the sun two hours into a televised speech. He recovered quickly and returned to the podium, insisting his swoon was merely fatigue. That evening he finished his speech in a television studio, joking that he had just been "pretending to be dead to see what my burial would look like."
Rumors about Castro's health abound. Although he is still capable of delivering his signature seven-hour speeches, his hands shake occasionally. His voice is sometimes tremulous, and his train of thought occasionally gets derailed. With the comandante's 75th birthday a month away, succession is a looming reality. In fact, transition planning has been under way for a decade, albeit discreetly, directed by Castro himself.
As far back as 1991, he began replacing the generation that made the 1959 revolution — los histricos — with rising stars of the next generation. Today, the average age of the 150 members of the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee is about 47, and nine of the 24 members of the Political Bureau are under age 50. Day-to-day management of the economy is in the hands of Vice President Carlos Lage Davila, 49, legislative affairs are looked after by President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon, 64, and international relations are handled by Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 36.
No advance planning, however, will lessen the shock of Castro's eventual demise. For 42 years, he has been the quintessential charismatic leader, towering over Cuba. Castro's heirs will have reason to be anxious about whether the regime can withstand the trauma of the founder's death.
After Castro, the first instinct of Cuba's political class will be to present a united front as the best guarantee against internal instability or international challenge. Hanging together will surely seem preferable to the risk of hanging separately. Real differences on critical policy issues divide the elite, however, and those conflicts will not remain hidden for long. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuban officials have been debating how to adapt to a globalized world market, how many concessions must be made to capitalism, how to manage the resulting social inequality, crime and corruption, and how to cope with the political challenge posed by declining state authority, a resurgent Catholic Church and an increasingly vibrant civil society. Castro has stood as the final judge and arbiter of these debates. When he is gone, his heirs will have to settle on new rules of the political game.
Castro's younger brother, Raul, is his officially designated successor and will probably assume the formal mantle of leadership. But most observers agree that Raul is more an organizational man than a political one. He may inherit the regime's top titles, but he will not enjoy his brother's authority to demand conformity from fellow leaders. Debate within the elite will surely intensify, spurred by those who favor more thoroughgoing economic reforms and greater political liberalization. After winning some key battles in the early 1990s, the reformers have been frustrated by Fidel's intransigence. Pent-up demands for change will be hard to contain when Castro no longer stands as an insurmountable bulwark against it.
Some Cubans will sincerely mourn Castro's death, especially those old enough to remember the pre-revolutionary era. Others will hope his passing quickens the pace of change. But the most common emotions will be fear and anxiety about the uncertainty of politics without Fidel. You could see it in the faces of the crowd listening to Castro's speech when he suddenly collapsed. Seventy percent of the Cuban population was born after 1959 and thus knows only Castro's communism. As Cuba's revolutionary generation passes from the scene, the idealists who fought against Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship are being replaced by bureaucrats whose claim on the heroic past is tenuous. As managers replace visionaries, ideological ardor cools, and the young take the revolution's accomplishments for granted, seeing only its failures.
To be sure, the repressive apparatus of state security remains intact, but fear alone is not enough to guarantee compliance. A small but persistent dissident movement is already demanding a greater voice for the population in affairs of state, and the Catholic Church is echoing that call, albeit in elliptical language intended to avoid a confrontation with government.
Across the Florida Straits, there will be much rejoicing over the news of Castro's death. City officials in Miami have contingency plans ready for the celebrations. In Washington, the most avid Castro-bashers will enjoy some measure of smug satisfaction, but among professionals in the foreign-affairs bureaucracies, there will be trepidation. The only serious threat Cuba now poses to the United States is the threat of instability and mass exodus. If Castro's demise proves to be a catalyst for violence, thousands will try to flee, prompting some Cuban Americans to take matters into their own hands, as they did during the boat-lift of 1980, when thousands defied President Carter and sailed south to pick up friends and relatives from the port of Mariel. If Cuban Americans become involved in Cuba's conflict, can Washington remain aloof? Even a reluctant president would be pushed toward intervention as the media broadcast heart-rending footage of Cuba's tragedy on the evening news — just as yellow journalists 100 years ago fired up public sentiment against Spain, forcing President McKinley to intervene in Cuba's war of independence.
Amid the uncertainty and peril that will follow Castro's passing, there is reason for a bit of hope. All the key actors involved have a common interest in avoiding violence. For Castro's heirs, violence would mean losing the last shreds of their regime's legitimacy and perhaps of their jobs as well. For the Cuban people, violence would mean even greater suffering, which is why the Catholic Church has been preaching reconciliation, forgiveness and a peaceful path to the future. For Cuban Americans, violence would mean the loss of family and friends on the island. And for the United States, violence would mean a heightened danger of intervention, setting in motion once again the paternalistic relationship that produced Castro in the first place. To avoid the worst case, all the contenders will need to exhibit greater tolerance, accommodation and willingness to compromise than they have historically. Moreover, if Washington hopes to foster these values in Cuba, it will have to practice them more diligently itself.
Castro will die someday. If that day comes sooner rather than later, perhaps the shock of it and the dangers it poses will be sobering enough to lead his heirs, their opponents on both sides of the Florida Straits and policymakers in Washington toward the common ground that they have not been able to find over the past 42 years.
William M. LeoGrande is a professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University, and the author of "Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992."