DALLAS — Despite exploding cigars and itching powder placed in his shoes by US spies, Cuban President Fidel Castro has outlasted eight American presidents. He may, as some observers wryly note, soon be on to No. 9.
But not even Mr. Castro will rule forever. And it is the eventual passing from the scene of the dictator, who will mark 40 years in power next February, that is held out by supporters and detractors as the next defining moment for the Caribbean island.
What will happen in a post-Castro Cuba? "The most desirable and least traumatic possibility [for Cuba] is that Castro initiates the coming transition himself," says Adolfo Salgueiro, a longtime international affairs analyst in Caracas, Venezuela. But such a scenario remains "the least probable, given the dictator's stubbornness," Mr. Salgueiro adds.
Among a handful of transitions Salgueiro envisions, the most probable is that Castro passes on and leaves power in the hands of his brother Ral. Head of the Cuban armed forces, Ral Castro is considered by some to be a pragmatic leader who knows the political and economic systems must change.
According to Salgueiro, Ral could move quickly toward a constitutional reform "in the style of Spain's post-Franco era" that would lead to a democratic, multiparty system - not out of conviction, but out of pragmatism. This paints Ral as a sort of "tropical Adolfo Surez," Salgueiro says, referring to the Spanish prime minister who oversaw Spain's democratic transition.
Not everyone sees a long-term role for Ral, although the comparison to Spain arises frequently.
Like Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco, Fidel Castro's "every instinct" is authoritarian, says Wayne Smith, a Cuba scholar. But he says that just as an isolated Spain evolved over 30 years under Franco - initially in its economy, then in its political culture - Cuba too will slowly evolve. "If [Fidel] Castro went down in a helicopter next year, Ral would be the initial leader," Mr. Smith says, followed shortly by a "collaborative government" with several army generals, including Carlos Lage, vice president and economic minister.
Other possibilities, including a civil uprising or irresistible demands for change by internal and external opponents of the regime, are very unlikely, observers agree.
As for Cuban officials, they scoff at all the post-Castro speculation and note that the country's 1976 Constitution lays out clearly the steps for replacing a departed president. "The vice president takes his place until the National Assembly elects a new president," says one official, "and that's it."