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Goodbye, Fidel -- If Not Quite Good Riddance

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Well, it sure was one of the moments we've all been waiting for here in Miami: in a "Message from the Commander in Chief" in the Communist Party paper Granma, the world's longest-reigning dictator, Fidel Castro Ruz, finally pink-slipped himself, not just as head of the military but as president of Cuba. The rumor mill's even been speculating that he's dead, and that the regime is preparing the way with this announcement. Either way, now someone else can be tapped for the top job by the National Assembly this coming Sunday. It'll probably be Fidel's brother Raúl (already de facto ruler, of course), but there's also talk about veep and de facto prime minister Carlos Lage, who at age 57 would represent the beginning of the passing of the torch to a new generation of Party hacks.

After a swing today through Little Havana and Hialeah, though, I found that more than a few of Miami's Cuban-Americans, regardless of age, have been underwhelmed. On this overcast and rainy morning, unlike the frenzy I covered in August of 2006 when Castro gave up power temporarily, the reaction's been more muted (though that could change once people get out of work this evening). There's been some honking and flag-waving, but most folks I've talked to seemed unsurprised and little more than mildly pleased. "It's something we've been expecting for a long time," one sixtysomething gent told me. Added Consuelo, a matronly lady who left Cuba in the 1960's, "nothing much will change down there -- it'll be the same rum in a different bottle."

Cubans who came to the United States more recently, though, along with my contacts still on the island, seemed more... "hopeful" if that's the right word. Both groups know the desperation in today's Cuba much better than exiles who jumped ship 40 years ago, and Cubans on the island took the news calmly and philosophically -- how else, when the old guy's been more or less out to pasture and in worsening health for the past year and a half? Still, they're cautiously optimistic because, as one Havana dissident -- and former Miami exile -- Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo put it, things have gotten so bad that "change is a question of necessity." Now that Fidel's officially out of the way, the thinking goes, Raúl and company will finally be free to start changes that they know are crucial if their Revolution is to survive long-term.

That's what I meant when I wrote in my Huffpo post just last Friday about the handful of "glimmerings of glasnost" both in Cuba and potentially also in Miami and Washington. It would be nice to imagine a Velvet Revolution, a post-Pinochet or -Franco transition -- but don't hold your breath. And a Ceausescu-style reckoning also doesn't seem likely (or desireable). Instead, chances are it'll be closer to what's happened in Syria since Hafez al-Assad. It's true that Assad's kid Bashir is young and reasonably vigorous, while Raúl's barely less geriatric than Fidel. But pretty much every Cuban, Cuban-American, and in-the-know gringo of my acquaintance believes the system's probably entrenched enough to survive both of them. And as we've learned all too well from eight years of Bush-Cheney, you only need a core of support to impose your will on an entire country.

What is fairly certain, though, is that no changes that might come to pass on the island will be enough for the "intransigentes" in Miami and Washington. One of America's top "embargo-industrialists," Miami GOP Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart, released a statement saying "Let us not get confused with the dictator's titles or lack of them -- nothing has changed," and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte tersely declared the U.S. economic and travel embargo against Cuba is not going anywhere "anytime soon."

On the other hand, I've heard University of Miami analyst Jaime Suchlicki muse, change could be afoot in a new (Democratic) administration, if Obama or Clinton manage to survive a likely Republican slime campaign. Clinton is taking the safe, keep-the-embargo position, while Obama staffers told me they're looking to lift the ban on most family visits, and eventually go even further, but "incrementally." Personally, I'd prefer to see freedom of travel totally reinstated -- but hey, people forget the guy's still a pol, no matter how inspiring, and at least the supposed black reincarnation of JFK is unlikely to pull another Bay of Pigs.

So, bottom line: Could this be the beginning, at long last, of Cuba's evolution along the lines of U.S. trade partners China and Vietnam? To get rich is glorious but challenge the Party and you're tostada? That's what early indicators seem to be suggesting, and that might well be fine with many -- possibly most -- Cubans on the island. The bigger problem is likely to be on this side of the Florida Straits -- the dead-end, all-or-nothing stance that for nearly a half-century has done nothing but help bolster the Castro regime by giving it an all-purpose scapegoat for its myriad failures. Except for those in Miami and Washington feeding off the embargo-industrial complex, we all want families reunited, political prisoners released, democratic elections, economic reforms, and freedom of the press. But to make it happen, we really need to work for all of that intelligently and realistically. For a change.