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What Cubans obliquely and ironically refer to as “the biological fact” may have come a step closer with news of the illness of Fidel Castro and his decision to hand over powers temporarily to his brother, Raúl Castro, the defence minister.

But whatever hopes Mr Castro’s Florida-based opponents may nurture, this is not an event that has caught his government off guard. Slowly the pace of political developments has been shifting in recent months – one western diplomat says that it has been like “watching a sudden move in a glacier” – as officials prepare behind the scenes for the time when their all-powerful leader would play at least a lower role.

“In their own way, Cuba has already been preparing the transition,” says David Jessop, who as head of the London-based Caribbean Council follows Cuban affairs closely. “Fidel’s illness has simply accelerated the process.”

The keynote of the discussions has been an attempt to give more importance to the institutions of the Communist party, moving away from the high-energy and very personalist style associated with Mr Castro. Raúl Castro told a meeting of the party central committee last month that “only the party” could be the “heir of the confidence Cubans have deposited in their leader”.

At the same meeting the party named a 12-member committee to take new executive powers. Both Fidel, whose 80th birthday takes place next week, and Raúl are on it but most of its members are from a younger generation of leaders who came to political maturity in the 1970s and 1980s.

While it is clear that with his brother in hospital, Raúl will play a key role, taking over the most important functions – as president, head of the army and head of the Communist party – other figures will gain importance. Carlos Lage, the secretary of the council of ministers, will take over as head of an energy reform programme being spearheaded by Mr Castro.

Responsibility for financing these and other reforms in education and healthcare once co-ordinated by the endlessly energetic and workaholic president will be shared between Francisco Soberón Valdes, the head of the central bank, and Felipe Pérez Roque, the foreign minister, as well as Mr Lage.

Economically Cuba is in a stronger position to face potential political turbulence than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, whose support had underpinned its performance during the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1990s Cuba survived by rapidly promoting its tourism industry and the growth of a vast informal sector, helped in part by a decision – subsequently reversed – to allow the US dollar to circulate freely.

Since the beginning of this decade, however, Mr Castro and hardliners have been invigorated by the radicalisation of Venezuela under its controversial leader, Hugo Chávez, and by the development of closer relations with China.

Cuba and Venezuela have formed a productive connection, with Venezuelan oil supplies easing petrol shortages and improving the reliability of the dilapidated public transport system. In return Caracas receives the services of more than 20,000 doctors, dentists and sports trainers, whose work in poor areas has helped boost Mr Chávez’s popularity.

Buoyed by this synergy and the rise in the prices of his own country’s commodity exports, Mr Castro has become an even more dogmatic Communist, further centralising the economy.

“Castro may be 80 years old but he is still making strategic moves,” says Phil Peters, at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think-tank.

Cuba’s economy has grown more than 8 per cent (or more than 10 per cent, using Cuba’s own unorthodox measures) over the past 18 months. High commodity prices have helped exports. Imports have nearly doubled and government spending increased by nearly a third.

“The economy, which appeared on its last legs in 1994, has thus been revived and has developed extremely rapidly,” says John Kirk, a Canadian academic. “This is all the more striking if one remembers the massive decline in GDP of 39 per cent between 1989 and 1993.”

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