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People stand at the entrance of a building next to a photograph of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana. JAVIER GALEANO/AP Photo gallery
Cuba's future: Change in disguise

MONTERREY, Mexico -- Here's my humble forecast of what will happen in Cuba after Fidel Castro's resignation as president of the island's ruling Council of State: You will see change disguised as continuity.

Yes, you read it accurately: We will see small, incremental changes -- remember, Fidel Castro remains a towering behind-the-scenes figure in Cuba, and he hasn't formally resigned for good as head of the Communist Party -- without formal recognition that any transition is taking place.

We may see Cuba allowing more people to work as self-employed barbers, plumbers, handymen, taxi drivers and a host of other occupations, outside the state's payroll, in what may become a rapid expansion of the island's minuscule private sector.

The Cuban dictatorship began allowing growing numbers of private occupational licenses in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when the Cuban economy plummeted. The number of licenses authorized by the state reached a peak of 209,000 in 1996, but Castro began restricting them when the Cuban economy started recovering that year, and is now estimated at 150,000.

''They need to do something to generate jobs, especially for the younger generation,'' says Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst with the Lexington Institute in Virginia. ``There is already a consensus among the leadership that if they don't fix the economy, the long term survival of socialism is at risk.''

We may see a gradual opening of agricultural markets, probably including granting land ownership to growing numbers of farmers, something the country badly needs to alleviate its dire food crisis.

''The food situation is abysmal,'' says John Kavulich, an analyst with the U.S.-Cuba trade and Economic Council, a private group that gathers information about Cuba's economy. ``The Cuban government says the economy grew by 12 percent last year, but the people's ration card is only good for two weeks.''

Why will whomever succeeds Castro as head of the Council of State accelerate economic change?

Because if the successor is his brother Raúl Castro, he has already said publicly that major changes are needed to modernize the island's crumbling economy. And if it's a younger figure -- somebody like economy minister Carlos Lage -- he is even more likely to press for economic revisions.

The more Fidel Castro fades away from the forefront of Cuba's decision-making process, the weaker the Fidel-backed orthodox wing of Cuba's Communist Party will feel, and the more likely economic reformers will be to push the envelope.

But, at least while Fidel Castro is alive, don't expect any of this to happen with the slightest criticism of his near 50-year dictatorship. On the contrary, we may see economic reforms, announced and packaged as inspired in something Fidel Castro has said -- probably taken out of context -- in any of his marathonic speeches over the past fifty years.

I remember that, in one of my last visits to Cuba before the Castro regime started denying me a visa in the early 1990s, I once asked a vice president of Cuba's writers and artists' union -- a card-carrying member of the Cuban Communist Party -- how Cuban artists could get away with exhibiting paintings depicting Cuba as a prison., or Fidel Castro as a monster, right there in Havana.

''Very easy,'' the official said. 'You organize the exhibit `in honor of the 30th anniversary of Fidel's assault of the Moncada barracks,' or 'in tribute to the 35th anniversary of Fidel's historic speech in Matanzas province,' and then you do pretty much whatever you want.''

Granted, Cuba will remain a dictatorship for the time being, and Fidel Castro's successor will not be able to do pretty much whatever he wants while Fidel is still alive.

But whoever succeeds him will be able to undertake much bolder changes, framing them as part of the ''Cuban revolutionary process,'' and paying lip service to the ailing revolutionary leader -- much like the writers and artists began doing several decades ago.