But while Castro’s sudden illness has marred the fiesta, from the Cuban leader’s point of view – barring his health - he has good reason to celebrate.


Whether or not his people have is another matter.

Evidently, the inevitable fact that their leader will one day die is one that Cubans have long contemplated.  

Even though he has been looking unwell for some time, when Cuban State Television announced Castro was undergoing emergency surgery and would be “temporarily” letting his chosen successor, younger brother Raul, run the show, Cubans went into a frenzy, difficult for many outsiders to understand.

 

An artist friend of mine who lives in Havana says there is a tangible sense of uncertainty in the air. 

Many hope that Castro’s departure will prompt a transition towards a Western style democracy, while others staunchly resist change; but for almost everyone there is a common thread: fear of the unknown.

Even if he returns to the Palace of the Revolution, most people believe that Castro will never be the same and no one knows for certain what form the post-Castro era will take, which is an uncanny feeling for people who live in a country where the all-powerful State, run by Mr. Castro, decides almost everything for you, from cradle to grave.

 

Most Cubans have never known another leader. No matter whether they like Fidel Castro or not, he has been an omnipotent force in their country, and in their lives, for nearly half a century.  

Successor


Raul Castro is an unknown
quantity in Cuban politics

On the other hand, his brother, the defence minister, is an unknown quantity to most and has been perpetually in Fidel's shadow.

It remains to be seen if Raul will be more hard line than Fidel; but he does have the reputation of being ruthless from his days as a guerrilla fighter in the 1950’s.

Many believe he would be more willing to use brute force to crush dissent, with the help of the army that he has controlled for the past 47 years.

It is unclear if, in a post-Fidel era, Raul would form a collegiate government with the other top brass from the Communist Party and to what extent the US will choose to become involved. 

 

The Bush Administration has said that the future of Cuba is in the hands of the Cubans, but has simultaneously encouraged those Cubans to accelerate a transition to democracy, pledging Washington’s full support to those who do so.

Such language can be interpreted as both interventionist and menacing, and plays right into the hands of the Castro government. 

Its decades-old argument that Washington is salivating to take over Cuba may be a tired one, but some Cubans still believe it.

Many on the island who say they want a transition are nonetheless frightened of what kind of transition they may get.  

Moral authority


Morales's election in Bolivia was
a morale booster for Castro

Some worry that the Cuban exiles in Miami will repatriate in numbers to take over bringing their superior economic means with them or that organised crime will be able to flourish as it did in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

During the nine years I lived in Cuba, I had constantly heard Cubans say that what they feared most about Castro's death was not knowing what would come next. 

For all the non-stop assurances by Communist Party leaders and the State-run media that their revolution is an institution that depends on no one man, Raul himself had told me in an interview two years ago that no one had the same moral authority that Fidel had to rule Cuba.

 

Many observers assume that when Castro dies he will automatically take his Communist system with him; yet people seem not to realise that while many in Cuba are disillusioned with the regime, they have not yet articulated a plan “B”.

There is no united opposition. There is no Boris Yelstin or even a Mikhail Gorbachev type figure. 
 

Indeed, from a geo-political standpoint, Castro has never had more friends and allies in Latin American governments.

A few years ago, he had no regional partners to help boost his island’s impoverished economy.

'Axis of good'

 

Venezuela's Chavez (L) has named
the trinity as the 'axis of good'

Today not only  can he count on unconditional political and economic support from Hugo Chavez, the president of oil-rich Venezuela, but he can also afford to snub capitalist countries that he once turned to for help, like Canada and several members of the EU declaring “we don’t need them", earlier this year.  

 

That is mainly because Chavez came to the rescue, providing 53,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba at preferential prices in exchange for health and educational services, as well as political solidarity.

Venezuela has replaced the USSR as Communist Cuba’s best friend and financial supporter.

A further boost came earlier this year when Evo Morales, Castro’s socialist friend and long-time admirer of the Cuban revolution, was elected president of Bolivia.  

To counter the Bushs Administration’s claim that Morales, Chavez and Castro have formed a Latin American axis of evil, the Venezuelan has named the new trinity “the Axis of Good”.

Furthermore the more moderate left-leaning leaders of Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina are also on friendly terms with Castro.

The region’s increasing dependence on oil from Venezuela, who has now become a major player in Mercosur, South America’s regional trade bloc, gives the Cuban leader a greater sense of security.
 

For as many years as most can remember, Fidel Castro has been predicting the fall of capitalism and of “The Empire”, as he refers to the US.   

On his 80th birthday, his predictions have not come true, but given Latin America’s new swing to the left, he can at least rejoice in the knowledge that he’s no longer alone.