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Fidel Castro was a throwback to a bygone era, writes Nic Robertson

Relations between US and Cuba improving

Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018

CNN  — 

Fidel Castro’s death is the end of an era. He has gone not with a bang, as he arrived, nor with a whimper, but a simple fading away. Laid low by serious illness, his iron grip on the island nation had loosened over the past decade, with full power passing to his brother Raul in 2008.

Castro’s communist impulses were imprisoned by his increasing infirmity. In his failing years, he witnessed much of what he stood for slip away. Diplomatic relations with the US – that 50 years ago had the world on the brink of nuclear war – are on the mend. Whether he backed his brother in this detente is unclear; what is clear is that a quarter of a century after the collapse of their principal sponsor – the Soviet Union – neither of the brothers could stand in the way of their people’s wishes any longer.

Cuban President Fidel Castro waves a flag during a visit on January 27, 2001 to the Havana neighborhood of San Jose de las Lajas.

Over the decades, plans were hatched to remove Castro by force if needed – the CIA reputedly plotted to put explosives in one of the Cuban leader’s favorite cigars. Despite the machinations, he survived to be a thorn in the side of every US administration.

Obama’s legacy

A throwback to a bygone era of Communism that most of the world had forgotten, Cuba was less than 100 miles from the home of capitalism, America. This situation could not last.

When President Obama came to office in 2009, Fidel had already seen off 10 of his predecessors, but it was Obama who was to help turn the course of Cuban history. He pledged to improve relations between the two countries. In April 2015, a handshake with Raul Castro in Panama signalled that one of Obama’s foreign policy goals might be on track.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro visit during an exhibition baseball game at the Estado Latinoamericano in March 22, 2016.

A month later, Cuba was removed from the US list of “State Sponsors of Terror” and within a year, President Obama travelled to Cuba – the first visit by a US President while in office in 88 years. Already relations between the two countries had been improving with the US allowing closer cooperation in telecommunications as the door to trade begun to creak open.

Following the 1961 abortive CIA inspired “Bay of Pigs” coup attempt to topple Castro and the ensuing Cuban missile crisis – when Castro invited the Soviet Union to base nuclear missiles on Cuba – successive US administrations had used a twin strategy of diplomatic and economic isolation.

Replacing Raul Castro

Direct flights from the US to Cuba resumed in September this year, opening the doors to a potential influx of US Tourism dollars. Deeper trade ties may take a little longer: the US 1996 Helms Burton Act states that full economic links can not be restored until Cuba holds “free and fair” elections.

Raul Castro has said that he will step down in 2018. How his replacement is selected will no doubt be a matter of close scrutiny, not just by the US Congress, but by the hundreds of thousands of Cuban diaspora.

How that transition unfolds will be a reflection of Raul Castro’s own rapprochement with the US. However, it currently feels less that he is opening the country up than the country and its people are beginning to burst free.