On Monday, less than two weeks before his 80th birthday, Fidel Castro temporarily relinquished power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, the official successor as head of state, the armed forces, and the Communist Party.
Whether or not Fidel, the world's longest-serving head of government, recovers from this particular infirmity, which is officially described as an "intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding," it is clear that his rule is at an end. Less clear is what will happen to his regime.
To begin with the obvious, Castroism will be dead. Since 1959, the regime in Cuba has always been Fidelismo, despite formal claims to nationalism, Marxism, Leninism, socialism, etc. Raul, 75 years old and himself sick, lacks charisma and is simply not Fidel. Indeed, the entire generation of leaders, mostly generals, that came to power in 1959 is way past retirement age.
What kept the regime together and helped it survive for so long, despite U.S. hostility and the collapse of communism elsewhere, was Fidel Castro's charisma and intelligence, rather than strong institutions or popular support. The only strong institution is the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), the power base that Raul has long controlled.
FAR is also the richest institution in a poor country, deeply involved with foreign investors in joint enterprises in tourism and mining. That means that Raul, who is more flexible than his brother on matters of economic reform, has a direct political interest in improving relations with those countries that are already involved in the Cuban economy: Canada and the Europeans. Unlike Fidel, he is unlikely to gratuitously insult them; it is also possible that the small private sector, including peasant markets, which was eviscerated by Fidel, will be allowed to come back, albeit slowly.
Raul is no more tolerant of political freedom than his brother, and he has the advantage of inheriting a fragmented and isolated opposition. Hence he faces no immediate threat. Furthermore, the population, certainly the young, is mostly apolitical and escapist - a natural result of decades of forced politicization and indoctrination. That, combined with military support, means that for a few years - probably the same few years Raul will remain as leader - no serious domestic challenge will threaten the regime.
The most immediate effect of Fidel's demise will be felt in the same arenas where he made his mark: foreign relations and ideology.
To begin with, while Fidel plays the role of "brain" and strategist of a bloc of radical Latin American leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, Raul cannot and likely will not even try to take on this role. Chavez, a not very intelligent character, will make more mistakes that try the patience of the United States or his South American colleagues. Without Fidel's guidance, such mistakes may well prove fatal.
In more general terms, the loss of Fidel will at least partially deflate the most recent rise of the demagogic, anti-American left in Latin America.
As is usual in Cuban politics ever since independence, the post-Fidel regime will have to define itself first and foremost in terms of its relationship with Washington - and Miami. While no spectacular change of official ideology in Havana should be expected, its basic anti-Americanism could well take a less vocal tone in the absence of Fidel's personal obsession with the United States, since Castroism, like any personal dictatorship, was strongly influenced by the dictator's idiosyncrasies.
Havana may even take some (very) discreet steps to improve contacts, if not basic relations, with both the United States and the diaspora. Such steps may include cooperation in combating drug trafficking and the return of U.S. criminal fugitives and terrorists now harbored in Cuba.
At least in theory, the United States is better prepared to deal with the post-Fidel situation than it was at the time of the Soviet collapse. The U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, an agency comprising officials from the State, Homeland Security and other departments, as well as several private and semi-private groups, has long prepared various scenarios and solutions to the problems created in a post-Castroism environment.
Ultimately, regardless of the name of Fidel's successor, Castroism will be gone. But for the Cuban people, still suffering after 50 years of dictatorship, there will still be only a flickering of light at the end of the tunnel.