At the beginning of August, Cuba got a new “Maximum Leader” for the first time in almost a half century. Raul Castro, 75, “temporarily” replaced his brother, Fidel, while the latter underwent major surgery.

Fidel, who had been filmed several days earlier in Argentina losing control when confronted by a critical Argentine journalist, disappeared from view on his return to Cuba. In a packaged, printed statement released on his eightieth birthday, August 13, two weeks after his surgery, he told Cubans that they should be “ready to confront any adverse news” about his health.

So, has Fidel already expired or will he return to power? Will he toddle onto the stage periodically in the months ahead to tinker around on the fringes of power, helping or hindering his brother or others in a succession that already seems to have begun? Certainly his absolute power will never be what it was since his long-denied mortality is now so obvious.

Analysts differ radically in their expectations. For me, the key immediate uncertainty is what Fidel will do while he survives; play the “maker” or the “spoiler.”

He could promote a smooth succession, if only by reaffirming his certainty that Raul will make the right decisions for Cuba’s future, whatever they may be. Or he could stubbornly dig in his heels and adamantly insist on maintaining the true Fidelista faith that has created the current morass.

History suggests he will go out stubborn, greatly increasing the prospects of bitter conflict, perhaps even civil war and U.S. military intervention. But some who have worked closely with the two brothers think his taste of mortality may cause him to be cooperative and allow his successors to find their own new and different legitimacy.

If Fidel dies soon without digging in his heels, or cooperates in the succession, I would predict a relatively smooth move toward carefully orchestrated economic reforms, probably under Raul Castro’s direction, but with degrees of support from other current and perhaps former leaders.

Who is Raul? He was always the loyal No. 2 to Fidel’s absolute power. But he has long been the key behind-the-scenes player, almost an efficiency nut in Cuban terms. His activities have included being Fidel’s hatchet man, a role some think is the sum-total of his character and will turn him into a status quo tyrant. I doubt it, for Raul is intelligent and far more pragmatic than Fidel, in addition to being more “human,” specifically more “Cuban,” than his patriarchal brother.

Today Cuba is an economic black hole almost equal to China when Mao Zedong died in 1976. In 2004, a high-ranking Cuban official admitted to Le Monde Diplomatique that, “Everybody [in Cuba] wants economic changes, except Fidel.”

Any post-Fidel leader who expects to survive must show the Cuban people rather quickly that there is hope for a better life in the near future. People put up with Fidel’s stifling economic policies and political repression because he was, well, Fidel. But as Basil Fawlty might say, there’s no Fidel Substitute.

In the near, post-Fidel future, Cuban leaders are likely to follow the Chinese lead in maintaining the revolutionary image of their original great leader even as they dismantle much of his economic thinking and system.

Raul and many other Cuban political, military, and economic leaders have for years expressed great admiration for the rapid economic progress registered in China and Vietnam. With his talent for listening and working with others, Raul may have a good chance to conduct Chinese-style change, that are long term, systematic, market-oriented economic reforms identified as market-socialism under single-party direction.

Up to now, Fidel has flatly rejected Chinese-style change for Cuba. But in November 2004, when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Havana, Fidel said that China is “the most promising hope and best example for all the countries of the Third World.” Thus, on this and other occasions, Fidel has provided a “bridge” to Chinese-style reforms in Cuba, which is more than Mao ever did in China.

A prominent Cuban democracy advocate and economist, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, just wrote from Havana in the Miami Herald that he thinks Raul may become a Cuban Deng Xiaoping and “promote economic reforms with the objective of creating a political base.” And he added that, “the economic reforms could be an anteroom to political reforms.”

What should the United States do? Back off and let Cubans work out their own future. Americans must recognize that if we can live with “market socialism” in China and Vietnam, we can do the same with respect to Cuba, if that is the direction the island’s new leaders choose to go. If Cubans don’t go that way, and democracy simply is not in the cards right away, they will commit suicide and their future will be much bloodier and more complicated. But that, too, is up to them.