We finally have tolerably good evidence that Fidel Castro is really alive and at least to some degree recuperating after ten months and several surgeries. The key event was a fifty-minute pre-recorded interview broadcast on Cuban National Television in early June, in which Castro, still clearly weak, aimlessly reminisced and at times appeared a bit incoherent.

The only people who had seen Fidel since he disappeared from public view (besides medical personnel) were, reportedly, his international revolutionary heir apparent, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, high level Asian communist officials and assorted crony bureaucrats and political lap dogs. Reportedly he recently met with the top leaders of Vietnam, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Yet the photos of these meetings were carefully staged photo-ops, filtered and screened by his handlers. Foremost among them is his brother, Raul, Fidel’s domestic heir apparent, who took over when Fidel went in for surgery. The big questions now are what his true condition is, whether he will get better and what role he will try (or be allowed) to take in running the country.

For decades Fidelistas of all stripes worldwide took as an article of faith that Fidel loved the Cuban people. If that is still the case and Fidel is well enough to meet with foreign leaders, why doesn’t he step forward for a moment to greet his beloved fellow-countrymen face-to-face? Several weeks ago in an article carrying his name, he whined that he too busy “to constantly trim my hair, beard and moustache, and to get dressed up every day” to meet people. Except, apparently, foreign leaders.

Why are his handlers so afraid of his appearing before Cubans and unbiased, non-apparatchik outsiders? Perhaps because they don’t know what he would say if he were on his own in public?

Fidel’s only other public appearances, besides the photo-ops with foreigners, had been just over a dozen short reflections published in his name in the Cuban Communist Party paper, Granma. For all we know these often turgid homilies and harangues are heavily edited or simply written by some party flunky. Fidel didn’t show up for his birthday parties last year (plural because when he couldn’t make the first one a second was scheduled, which he also missed), or for the May Day parade last month, although Chavez insisted that he would appear.

Taking what little we know for sure, what might Cubans and the world expect now? Fidel could still be a terrible spoiler, in Cuba as well as abroad. His adamant, decades-long commitment to failed socialist formulas got Cuba into its current mess. Were he to actively press these formulas again, the transition already tentatively underway could be de-railed. If his survival raises the stock of “Chavistas” around the hemisphere, he could further delay modernization and prolong the misery and inequality that characterize the entire region.

But, while he still slams the United States, there is reason to think he will now cooperate with the economic reforms being proposed—reforms that would create greater domestic opportunities for individual Cubans as well as expanded trade in global markets. Those reforms could actually improve the lives of the nation’s people. The entire Cuban leadership has a stake in his cooperating, or seeming to cooperate, because productive reforms are what might guarantee their political survival, at least in the short- to medium-term. Fidel’s interview comments, his newspaper columns and several other things suggest that he may now act as elder statesman and help implement a smooth transition into the post-Fidel period.

In the reported meetings with Chinese and Vietnamese leaders Fidel praised their rapid economic growth for benefiting so many of their people. And, several weeks ago Chavez spoke of a letter Fidel had presumably sent him praising the Chinese model for significant market-oriented reform.

What model? A long-time aide to Raul who is now in exile, former Cuban U.N. ambassador Alcibiades Hidalgo, and I, have written that for years Raul has sympathized with change in the Chinese or Vietnamese style, that is, significant market-oriented reform in the economy, which is still called socialist, under the continuing direction of a single party and repression of politics.

If Fidel supports such reform, or at least does nothing to impede it, the prospects for serious civil conflict will be substantially reduced, the lives of the Cuban people will improve and the prospects for the survival of the Cuban Communist Party well into the post-Fidel period will be much improved.