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When Castro falls for good

Rarely does a stumble become a symbol.

But when Fidel Castro fell onto concrete last Wednesday after delivering a graduation speech, it looked eerily similar to the way the statue of Saddam Hussein fell after coalition troops occupied Baghdad last year. As any observer with an ounce of sense knows, this temporary stumble, which broke Castro's knee and arm, is nothing compared to what will happen when Cuba's dictator dies. Doctors can help mend the 78-year-old leader's broken bones, but mending Cuba's broken nation will be much more difficult.

True to the form of a dictator, Castro went to extraordinary lengths to show Cubans he was not seriously hurt, at least not in the way a mere mortal would have been. He issued a lengthy statement read on state-run television painting a picture of himself heroically conducting state business by phone from the ambulance, and of refusing general anesthesia during a 3 hour 15 minute operation, so that he could continue running the country.

No doubt when he dies some day Castro will have made provisions for an underling to release a statement maintaining he is still in charge from realms beyond.

Leaders of free societies don't worry about going under general anesthesia. That is because they arrive at power legitimately, under the consent of the people. They also operate within systems of government that provide for orderly transitions of power. Castro, apparently, can't bear the thought of anyone else leading Cuba.

Oh, there is a plan. His brother, Raul Castro, is the designated successor. But he is 73 and may lack the energy and support to take over. More likely, a power vacuum will occur, and it may be exacerbated by Cuban refugees in Florida who return to the island in hopes of reclaiming freedom and lost property.

The hope is that all Cubans will unite in the cause of establishing a truly free government, but that is uncertain after 45 years of Castro. Besides, power vacuums tend to result in no shortage of people eager to step in.

Cubans have no one to blame for this uncertainty than Castro, himself — just as they have no one else to blame for their own economic woes.

The U.S. State Department got it right when it refused to offer any sympathy for Castro's injuries. As spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We, obviously, have expressed our views about what's broken in Cuba." And that won't be easily fixed.