Fidel Castro is stepping down? As Dorothy Parker said upon hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, how can you tell?
The bearded one lost most of his relevancy for us "yanquis" long ago. He once loomed large in the lives of baby boomers as we crouched under our desks in "duck-and-cover" drills, terrified of his nuclear-tipped Russian missiles. To today's youths, Mr. Castro is so last century. Even in Miami and Havana, the response to Mr. Castro's retirement is reported to be remarkably ho-hum.
The Castro we used to know and care about has not been in charge for quite some time. His brother, Raul, 76, has been acting president since Fidel, 81, fell ill in July 2006.
The Soviet Union is no longer around to prop up his island's economy with $2 billion a year. Even his stature as Latin America's leading leftist is getting nudged aside by one of his biggest fans, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Mr. Chavez wants to be Mr. Castro, but with oil, as he enlarges his influence across Cuba and the rest of Latin America.
Although Raul has his own record for ruthlessness, he also has begun to sow the seeds of a post-Fidel Cuba. He is a "pragmatic institutionalist," in the view of Julia E. Sweig, director for Latin America Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations. For practical reasons, he has inched his country toward a more competitive economic system, like China, whose "communism" increasingly looks more like state-controlled capitalism.
Raul also has encouraged public meetings to air complaints and hinted at something else that Fidel dreads: the use of "incentives" to increase productivity.
Those who visit Havana, as I did a few years ago, will find a people eager to free their entrepreneurial and enterprising spirit from state-sponsored constraints.
Generations of Cubans born since Fidel's revolution have begun to lay the groundwork of a post-Fidel Cuba in a vigorous dollar-based economy that parallels the government's anemic peso economy.
Besides a great potential vacation spot, Cuba offers something that America's farmers, manufacturers and service providers need: customers. After a half-century, the U.S. embargo against Cuba has outlived any usefulness it might have had.
The next president must decide whether he or she will continue to pander to the hard-line embargo supporters or open diplomatic and economic doors to a post-Fidel Cuba that approaches capitalism with no more fear than Fidel generates among most Americans today.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama expressed a willingness last week to fully engage Cuba diplomatically. Only Mr. Obama said he would meet with the next Cuban leader without preconditions, although he backed away from his support for lifting the trade embargo.
Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain, who has accused Cubans of participating in the torture of some of his fellow prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, has said Raul is "worse" in many ways than Fidel. Yet since Mr. McCain also took the lead on improving relations with Vietnam, it would not be that big a leap for him to do the same with Cuba. We can only hope.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears weekly in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.