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Before the end of Castro

For decades there were rumors _ all of them false _ of the demise of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. But recently one seemed more credible than ever.

On Jan. 3, Castro appeared in good health as he opened the 45th anniversary celebrations of his tenure. But, sporting the red and gold epaulets reserved for important occasions, he delivered a shorter than usual speech. He maintained that the leaders of the Cuban Revolution had launched their struggle purely for social justice, not for glory, and in spite of everything had succeeded in writing "an unprecedented page in history."

The festivities began with performances by modern dance groups, children's chorales, Spanish dancers and Cuba's beloved singer Omara Portuondo.

But Castro soon looked exhausted and his voice faltered several times during the speech. Eleven days later, on Wednesday, Jan. 14, he threw himself into a punishing day of activities. According to reports, he went to bed in the wee hours of the morning, rising early to chat with his friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and receive Luis Garzon, the mayor of Colombia's capital, Bogota.

It was Garzon who set off the alarm signals. He said Castro looked "very ill" and that he had difficulty speaking. On Jan. 16 around 4 p.m. news spread that Castro had suffered a heart attack.

The report, though unfounded, brought a chill to activities in the University of Miami's main lecture hall as Roger Noriega, U.S. undersecretary of State for Latin American affairs, was speaking. Noriega had just been saying that Castro would not live forever and that, upon his death, Cuba would inevitably see "a swift democratic change and a government elected by the people."

President Bush has appointed Noriega to coordinate a commission made up of 100 officials gleaned from the National Security Council and from the departments of State, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security. Their mission is to advise what actions the United States would quickly set in motion in the event of Castro's death.

Although the report wasn't to be delivered to Bush until May 1, Noriega went ahead in announcing that the plan included the creation of "basic institutions for free enterprise," and ideas for "improving infrastructure and providing new health, housing and urban service systems." In other words, a smaller-scale version of what the United States is doing in Iraq.

The official pretext for the post-Castro commission is, in the event of Castro's death, to prevent massive waves of migrants that would create chaos both on the island and in Florida. But all this excitement is also a sign that the U.S. government still considers the Cuban situation as a domestic affair, just as it did half a century ago.

Castro will be 78 on Aug. 13 and clearly his reflexes are no longer as quick and effective as they once were. Disobedience is growing on the island and the only way he counters it is with ever greater repression. Sometimes, he doesn't punish the disobedience itself, but the out-in-the-open dissidents, as happened in April 2003 when three were executed and an untold number of opposition members were imprisoned for security reasons that remain unconvincing.

Since Castro took power in 1959, he has lasted longer and in better shape than the 10 succeeding U.S. presidents. He has airily faced down a trade embargo that has proved very much to his advantage and turned out to have more value as a propaganda tool than any loss suffered from the lack of trade. The embargo has also served as an endless justification for Cuba's adverse economic conditions.

Three of the world's greatest leaders in the last half century pointed out in September 2003 that the economic excuse had become discredited. In an article in the Washington Post, former Presidents Lech Walesa of Poland, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Arpad Goncz of Hungary wrote: "It is time to put aside trans-Atlantic disputes about the embargo on Cuba and concentrate on direct support for Cuban dissidents, and on prisoners of conscience and their families."

Certainly, Castro's death would open up a chasm. And at first, a wave _ or various waves _ of chaos is not out of the question.

The same thing was predicted in Spain upon the death in 1975 of dictator Francisco Franco, who had governed for 36 years. But old adversaries united to take the country forward.

Historical hatreds in Spain at the time were ferocious _ much like those between Cubans now _ but politicians of diverse stripe had spent years preparing for an orderly transition. In Cuba, that hasn't happened nor does it appear likely.

It is possible that millions of exiles will want to return quickly to the island, even though generations of them have spent years residing elsewhere.

Many of the old landholders, or their offspring, wielding documents of ownership, will fight to recover their properties, occupied by other families for decades. Some of those properties will be sold to third parties for ridiculous prices, which could generate multiple lawsuits over the same piece of land.

Cubans, however, while fearing a civil war, might take advantage of the confusion to launch an exodus that many had dreamed of.

The United States, of course, will actively try to influence the transition process. The post-Castro committee _ that the dictator dubbed "that group of idiots" last December _ will thus have an advance plan and Bush will pull out all the stops to implement it. If Castro dies before November's U.S. elections, the succession will become an absolute priority for the American president, who owes his job to the Cuban-American vote that most probably turned the tables in his favor in Florida in the 2000 election.

It is normal to fear the worst when the death of a dictator is announced, but the worst usually never materializes. Everything indicates, though, that the end of Castro could be the tragic exception to that rule.

Tomas Eloy Martinez is the author of The Peron Novel, Santa Evita and The Flight of the Queen, which recently won Spain's most prestigious award for fiction. He is director of Latin American Studies at Rutgers University and travels widely as a writer and journalist. This article was distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.