For the first time in almost 50 years, Fidel Castro is not in control of Cuba. And contrary to predictions, the system has not broken down, the population has not revolted, the revolution has not reversed. Now the analysts are asking: will it last? Is Raúl Castro going to reroute the revolution? Has the country entered a "transition"?Whatever one thinks of Fidel Castro, he is one of the few men who have known the glory to enter history and legend in their own lifetime. He is the last "superstar" of international politics. He belongs to the generation of mythical insurrectionists - Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Carlos Marighela, Camilo Torres, Mehdi Ben Barka - who after the second world war launched into political action with the hope of changing an unequal world. This was a generation that thought that communism promised a radiant future, and that injustice, racism and poverty could be eradicated in less than a decade.
Since 1960, the US has imposed a devastating commercial embargo and ideological war against Havana. Despite this, Castro's small country - little more than 100,000 sq km and 11 million inhabitants - has in the fields of education, health, medical research and sport, reached levels that are the envy of even developed countries.
Cuba no longer depends on any empire: not Spain, not the US, nor the Soviet Union. The end of the USSR did not mean the end of the revolution; and neither will the passing of Castro.
Some analysts predict that Fidel Castro's death would trigger a leadership collapse similar to that in eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. They are mistaken. In eastern Europe a system imposed from outside and detested by the population crumbled in a short time. In Cuba, whatever the adversaries of Fidel Castro might claim, the loyalty of the majority to the revolution is unquestionable. And it is a loyalty based on a nationalism that has its roots in the historical resistance against the imperialistic ambitions of the United States.
Now finally fully independent, Cuba has started a kind of second political life, joining with the international left in the vast offensive against neoliberalism. In this new geopolitical context, the Cuban revolution is still an important reference point for millions of disinherited, in spite of its deficiencies (economic difficulties, bureaucratic incompetence, low-level corruption, food shortages, power cuts, transport problems, restrictions of certain freedoms).
This is particularly true in Latin America where, since the electoral victory of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998, the polls have allowed the election of progressive candidates: Kirchner in Argentina, Lula in Brazil, Vázquez in Uruguay, Torrijos in Panama, Préval in Haiti, Bachelet in Chile, Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua and Correa in Ecuador. This situation is completely new.
Not so long ago, a military coup or direct intervention by the United States quickly put an end to any prospect of reform. Why isn't it thus any more? Undoubtedly because since the 1991 Gulf war, the United States has shifted its geopolitical concern towards the Middle East - or its oil. In Latin America this change of axis has allowed the blossoming of leftwing experiments and prevented them from being choked in the cradle.
It was in this new context that, because of his health, Fidel Castro yielded power on July 31 2006. Since then Raúl Castro and his team have stressed three priorities: food, transport and the environment - three fields where the deficiencies, shortages and dysfunctions are structural and give rise to widespread dissatisfaction. A general discussion has been launched on how to make the economy more efficient, and on fighting absenteeism and apathy.
This open debate is taking place against the background of local elections currently under way that culminate in the general elections in spring next year. Will Fidel Castro stand for election in his district of Santiago? If not, it will mean that he does not wish to be re-elected president.
Thus, next May, Cuba could have a new head of state. But that would not signal the end of Fidel Castro, who will undoubtedly continue to exert a discreet influence on the line of the revolution: a line that most likely will not follow a Chinese model, nor a Vietnamese model, but will continue to follow a uniquely Cuban path.
Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde diplomatique and co-author with Fidel Castro of the forthcoming Fidel Castro: My Life; he speaks tonight at London Metropolitan University.