For most ordinary mortals, the celebration of an 80th birthday would be little more than a sobering milestone.
But for those following the remarkable life and seemingly endless rule of Fidel Castro, who becomes an octogenarian today, his descent into frail old age has significance far beyond the boundaries of his beloved Cuba.
The recent news that an ailing Castro, the world's longest-serving dictator, had "temporarily" handed over the reins of power to his brother, Raul, sent reverberations through the Western hemisphere.
In a region long accustomed to Fidel's somewhat eccentric presence, his potential absence has prompted a world of speculation about Cuba's future, a future in which, ironically, the United States now appears likely to have far less influence than it might like.
Having imposed a full trade embargo on Cuba in 1962, successive U.S. governments have made themselves incapable of influencing the future course of Cuba's fortunes, despite its location just 90 miles from our shores.
In recent years, Castro has forged strong economic relationships with countries like Venezuela, China, Spain and Canada, boosting Cuba's economy and further alienating Cuba from the United States.
Those alliances, some experts on the region say, have rendered a rapprochement be-
tween Cuba and the United States less likely - and less necessary - than ever.
"We have all this extensive rhetoric about how we want to bring change to Cuba, but our policy cuts off every avenue of American influence," said Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization in Arlington, Va., that conducts field research on developments in Cuba and on U.S.-Cuba relations.
The policy to which Peters referred is grounded not only in the embargo itself but in the U.S. government's insistence on placating the bitterly anti-Castro emigre community, primarily in South Florida, whose members staunchly oppose any overtures to Cuba that do not include ousting Castro and his proteges from power.
That stance was turned into law in 1996 with passage of the Helms-Burton Act, which, among other things, tightened sanctions, extended restrictions on Americans' travel to the island and threatened legal action against even non-U.S. companies that did business with Cuba.
The law essentially ties the United States' hands when it comes to influencing reform in Cuba, which, Peters says, is unfortunate, given that Raul Castro is known to be more open to free-market ideas than his brother.
"From the U.S.'s point of view, the message of the law is that Raul can be a flaming closet reformer, but, as he's there, we won't talk with him and we won't change our policy," said Peters. "As a result, Cubans are going to stay as they are now, as long as these other relationships are promising. Cubans watch the U.S. very carefully, but their diplomatic energies are being placed elsewhere now. They've moved to greener pastures."
In the absence of U.S. influence, European and Latin American nations - as well as China, which imports Cuban nickel - stand to loom large in Cuba's future.
Wayne Smith, a former diplomat who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for four years starting in 1982, said the lack of a role for the United States in Cuba's transition is "almost pathetic."
Raul Castro, Smith said, "is rather pragmatic and might be willing to reach some accommodation with the U.S., but they won't deal with him."
Either way, he said, there is "not going to be any collapse" of Cuba's government, much as the Bush administration - and its Cuban-American supporters - would appreciate such an event.
"I almost feel sorry for the hard-line exiles in Miami, banging their pots," Smith said, referring to the cheerfully cacophonous demonstrations that greeted Castro's announcement on July 31 that, after ruling continuously for 47 years, he was ceding power while recovering from surgery. to correct intestinal bleeding.
Many of the revelers clearly believed that Castro was on his deathbed, or close to it, and predicted a radical unraveling of his regime and a sudden end to Cuba's long isolation from the United States.
And yet the transfer of power in Cuba, Smith said, was accomplished without a hint of trouble.
In the meantime, Smith said, the U.S. administration is "left without any means of bringing about" the reforms Bush called for in his statement of Aug. 3, when he encouraged "all democratic nations to unite in support of the right of the Cuban people to define a democratic future for their country."
Bush was evidently hewing to the spirit of Helms-Burton as he promised that, "In the event of a transition in the Cuban government, we stand ready to provide humanitarian assistance as needed to help the Cuban people." He left no doubt that the transition he meant involved the permanent ouster of both Castros as well as their ideological adherents.
Two years ago, in a 500-page document that spelled out its hopes for political change in Cuba, the Bush administration expected to be able to capitalize on what was then a Cuban economy "on the rocks," Smith said, "on the verge of collapse."
Instead, he said, Cuba has an economic growth rate of 8 percent, according to recent CIA figures.
"They've got these extremely important new economic relationships, the price of nickel is at an all-time high, and China is talking about investing in its nickel industry," Smith went on. "Blackouts are over. Food is plentiful. Things are really looking up. I don't mean that life is a bowl of cherries, but compared to the way things were just three years ago, it's immensely improved."
In such an environment, the U.S. administration's position -- backed by hard-liners like Rep. Mario DM-maz-Balart, of Florida's 25th Congressional District -- that Castro and his cronies must fall before the U.S. takes any steps toward normalizing relations is "laughable," said Kirby Jones, founder and president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, who has traveled to Cuba for 30 years.
"It's like Dick Cheney saying we're going to be welcomed in the streets of Baghdad," said Jones, who in 1988 wrote the benchmark study Opportunities for U.S.-Cuban Trade, commissioned by the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. From his base in Washington, Jones offers consulting services to U.S. companies seeking business with Cuba, primarily in food and agriculture, which have been exempt from the embargo since 2001.
While such trade thrives, Jones said, the Bush administration is stymied.
"The administration has no real mechanism for finding out what's going on in Cuba, other than running the risk of doing what they did in Iraq, which is to rely on exiles for information," Jones said. "Some of these people haven't been back to Cuba for 30 or 40 years, and they have strong political agendas. The administration needs to reach out for information unfiltered by political bias, which is what you get in the exile community."
"The biggest hurdle is how does the U.S. government overcome 45-plus years of hostility?" said Jones.
A good first step, he said, would be to publicly assure Cuba that the United States will no longer engage in overt or covert actions to undermine the government in Havana. The administration, he said, should also lift travel restrictions, especially for the business community, and acknowledge, if only obliquely, that the decades-long embargo has failed to alter or even affect Cuba's socialist doctrine.
"Whether Fidel dies next week or in five years, something like that is going to have to happen if the U.S. is going to have some influencethere," Jones said. Meanwhile, he added, "Cuba has other fish to fry."
Some of those fish, however, may not be all that palatable in the long run, said Edward Gonzalez, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Cuba's ties with oil-rich Venezuela and its leader, Hugo Chavez, "could well be precarious," Gonzalez said, given Chavez's evident desire to supplant Castro in his position as the leader of Latin America's anti-U.S. forces.
Gonzalez said he doubted Chavez's commitment to "keep the regime afloat if Fidel Castro were to die or be incapacitated," and said there was no guarantee that Venezuela would continue to supply Cuba with petroleum at cut-rate prices, as it does now.
A public-policy expert at the RAND Corporation and author of Cuba Under Castro: The Limits of Charisma, (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974), Gonzalez was equally dismissive of Raul Castro's supposed control on the affairs of state.
"Poor Raul," he said. "He will only have held the reins of power a short time before Fidel comes back. Or Fidel will be looking over Raul's shoulder the whole time: He still has veto power."
Under that scenario, Raul Castro's predilection for the so-called "Chinese model" -- an authoritarian government with a market economy -- would not get past his brother's stern gatekeeping. A market economy was never part of Fidel's plan.
"As long as Fidel is around, neither the U.S. nor Raul would be able to change course."
Cuba, he suggested, is as ideologically entrenched, in its own way, as the United States.
"Raul will be between a rock and a hard place," Gonzalez said. "If he begins to negotiate with the U.S., he could be charged with betraying Fidel's nationalist legacy. Fidel values his place in history: He knows his model has failed, but he's not going to admit it."
By the same token, though, the sanctions that were meant to hasten Castro's fall came to nothing, said Francis Fukuyama, who teaches international political economy at Johns Hopkins' Nitze School.
"We tried to bring them down all these years with the embargo, but we haven't gotten rid of Castro's regime," Fukuyama said. "Our domestic M-imigrM-i policy has basically put us in a position of not having any cards to play. An engagement policy would probably have given us a few more options than we have now."
Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, was more optimistic than most about the prospects for Cuba's future within the U.S. sphere of influence. He said that, despite the many years of official separation, there is a real desire among Cubans -- particularly the professional class -- for reestablishing relations with the United States.
"There are a lot of ties that could easily be restored," Benjamin-Alvarado said. "Cubans aren't stupid. They know we've been trying to stick it to them all these years, but they can tell the difference between the American people and U.S. policy."
Most importantly, he said, a normalization of relations could mean the United States would open doors for Cuban access to organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank.
"Cuba has not been able to avail itself of any of those loans for development," Benjamin-Alvarado said. "Everything needs to be fixed or replaced in Cuba, and in the end, we're going to pay for it."