Leading article: Cloaked in myth, a leader who divides the world

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"I have no plans to be in power when I'm 100," the soon-to-be-80 Fidel Castro joked in a speech last week. It is now clear that following his intestinal surgery and the "temporary" transfer of power to his younger brother Raul, he will be stepping down a great deal sooner than that. What happens thereafter in Cuba cannot be predicted. The possibilities are as varied and as conflicting as opinions about the regime set up by the man who is now the world's longest serving head of government, outlasting nine American presidents in the process.

Castro is a polarising figure, a leader encrusted in myth. As often as not, the feelings he inspires reflect one's views of the US, the giant neighbour across the Straits of Florida which has been trying to get rid of him almost from the moment he seized power in 1959. Dislike the US, and almost certainly you will have a sneaking admiration for the way in which he has withstood its vindictive bullying, for his forging of a distinct national identity which the persecution from Washington has only served to strengthen. You will point to the achievements of the revolution, in health care and education, as proof that American-style liberal capitalism does not have all the answers.

But that is to ignore the glaring failures of Castro's Cuba - its appalling human rights record, its shackled press, its widespread poverty and long record of economic failure. Cuba's situation admittedly was not helped by the collapse of its patron, the Soviet Union, 15 years ago. But the timid economic liberalisation measures of the past few years, some of them now reversed, did little to put matters right. If you judge the success of a country by whether more people seek to leave it than enter it, then the communist regime in Havana scores very poorly. Unarguably, the Cuban-Americans who poured into the streets of Miami upon news of Castro's illness, have good reason to celebrate. Whether they will have their way is another matter.

The immediate future of Cuba is more Castro, in the person of the 75-year-old Raul. But he is less popular than his sibling, and by most accounts his instincts are even more repressive. He will surely be no more than a stopgap before the real transition begins. All dictatorships believe they are eternal. But history's lesson is that next to none are. But the feelings of its population are unknown - after all, there has been no election for 47 years - and its longer-term future is anything but pre-ordained. Maybe, as successive US Presidents have blithely assumed, and the exile community profoundly desires, Cuba will throw off Castroism as if it had never happened. Maybe US-style capitalism will sweep all before it as the island embraces "freedom and democracy", made in the USA. Indeed, the Bush administration already has an $80m programme to promote that end. But it is unlikely to be as simple as that.

For one thing, accommodation must be reached between the Cubans who will undoubtedly return and the supporters of the former Castro regime. There will be bitter disputes about property and other assets confiscated at the time of the revolution. Nor can it be assumed that Cuba's foreign policy will neatly fall into place. An authoritarian regional alliance has emerged between Castro and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and ties with China have strengthened. There is no guarantee the island will move back into the US orbit.

Best of all would be a third way as change finally overtakes a country that for five decades has defied it. This Cuba will hold elections and become a genuine democracy. It will liberalise its economy, retain its strong schools and hospitals and unlock the great talents of its people. It will be a Cuba that is not the 51st state in the Union, but an example for the entire region.