Barring an unexpected comeback on the part of Fidel Castro, the fundamental question in Cuba now is whether Raúl Castro is in a position to perpetuate the communist regime, or whether the politicians (in the Council of State), the ideologues (in the Communist Party) and the soldiers (in the armed forces)—and factions within each group—will begin a power struggle.

In the communiqué through which he handed power over to his brother, Fidel Castro specifically put three institutions under the control of Raúl while leaving other responsibilities to various cronies. Those three institutions—the Communist Party, the Council of State and the armed forces—are the ones that, in the vacuum likely to follow the demise of Castro’s five-decade-old messianic leadership, could come into open conflict.

Recent signs were already pointing to a power struggle. The most telling is a law passed by the National Assembly on June 9 and largely missed by foreign analysts. It gives subordinates authorization to impugn the decisions of their leaders if they “contravene” communist law. A few weeks later, Raúl Castro gave a speech in which he said that, should his brother be unable to continue, it would fall upon the “Communist Party” to take the lead—a way of reaffirming the subordination of the generals to the ideologues. Considering that Raúl was the minister of the Armed Forces, it is particularly interesting that he needed to remind his generals in public that they are under communist rule.

Many experts expect Raúl Castro to follow the Chinese model. They point to the fact that he has traveled to Beijing on a number of occasions and that he expressed, as early as 1997, admiration for the combination of ruthless political control and market economics. They also think the signals he sent in 2001, hinting at some form of “normalization” of relations with the U.S., betray a closet pragmatist. Carlos Alberto Montaner, leader of the Cuban Liberal Union, an exile group, believes “Raúl has no choice but to start to move in the direction of a transition.” William Ratliff, a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who has closely followed Cuba and China and conducted extensive interviews with top leaders in both countries, told me “the survival strategy will come into play”—meaning that Raúl and his cronies, conscious of the fact that Cubans will not be easy to control with Fidel out of the picture, will play the Chinese card and try to generate a measure of prosperity in order to survive. “I wouldn’t bet my pension on what Raúl does, but I would consider putting up maybe half of it.”

This perspective carries much weight, and many elements would seem to point in that direction. However, I tend to think the more likely scenario is a power struggle in which Raúl Castro will try to prevent change. The outcome of that struggle is uncertain, but it will make even a partial opening up of the system too risky for Raúl and others. The struggle will probably pit traditionalists against a faction clever enough to see that only a transition to democracy and a market economy makes any sense for them and everybody else.

Fidel Castro flirted with the Chinese model between 1992 and 1997, when, anxious to survive the collapse of the Soviet empire that had subsidized him to the tune of $6 billion a year for three decades, he welcomed cash remittances from Cuban exiles, tourists, joint ventures between state companies and foreign investors, and home restaurants known as paladares.

It was the third phase of the revolution’s economic history. First had come the debacle of the early 1960s, when the Che Guevara model of industrialization through central planning destroyed the economy. Then came the colonial era: Castro sent sugar to the Soviets, in return for oil, some industrial plants and military equipment. The collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to that. The third phase—a mild version of the Chinese model—gradually ended at the end of the 1990s. The fourth and current phase of total dependence on Hugo Chávez, who sends to Cuba 100,000 barrels of refined crude per day, food, and some construction material in exchange for a few thousand doctors and assistance in building a police state, was Castro’s bet for the next few years.

The reason Castro put a stop to reform in the ’90s was perfectly sensible: He realized power centers beyond his control would soon emerge, subverting the whole premise of his one-man rule.

Under the Cuban system, only one man could possibly reverse course right now and play, once again, the role of an ideological transvestite while maintaining the loyalty of the entire regime: Fidel Castro himself. Raúl has expressed occasional admiration for China and said one or two things about coming to terms with Washington, but he is also one of the most ruthless revolutionary leaders. He is associated with many of the executions that have taken place in Cuba and played a key role in the various purges that have periodically shaken the armed forces, including the purge that sent Gens. Arnaldo Ochoa and Antonio de la Guardia to face the death squad in 1989. He knows that any attempt to reverse course and question Fidel Castro’s legacy would make him vulnerable to factions that could claim to be acting in the name of the authentic principles of the revolution—perhaps under the law passed in June of this year.

The other possible scenario—the perpetuation of the revolution without Fidel Castro—is also unlikely. This is a regime that has sent thousands of people to their deaths either by executing them, by causing them to flee on rafts that disappeared in the shark-infested waters of the Florida straits, or by dispatching them to fight wars in Africa. It has caused one-fifth of its population to go into exile and turned what in 1959 was one of the three most successful economies of Latin America into a beggar country. Only the fierce loyalty to Fidel Castro on the part of the communist structure and the crushing machinery of repression personally subordinated to him have been able to preserve the unity of the government in the face of such excruciating suffering on the part of the people. Raúl, an ailing septuagenarian with a reputation for heavy drinking, does not command anything like his brother’s legitimacy. His close subordinates in the army, Gens. Julio Casas and Abelardo Colomé, and his son-in-law, Lt. Luis Alberto Rodríguez, are not enough to guarantee him a smooth run for years to come.

A power struggle, therefore, is in order, perhaps relatively soon. There is no way of knowing whether this will be a peaceful struggle and whether a faction tired of this colossal revolutionary charade will eventually prevail and begin a transition period. But at least we know, to judge by the experience of the last two decades around the world, that one of the last five communist tyrannies left in the world is in its death throes. Viva Cuba libre!