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In Cuba, life after Fidel won't look much different than life with him, experts say

In the wake of Fidel Castro’s death – and as the celebrations on Miami’s Calle Ocho and the days of official mourning in Havana subside in the coming weeks – Cubans and observers of the regime are wondering what life on the island will be like without the charismatic revolutionary and despised dictator.

The answer, at least according to most experts, appears to be not so different.

While Castro's legacy is likely to loom large in Cuba for decades – or at least until a regime change happens – the transition to the presidency of Fidel's brother Raúl back in 2006 occurred in such a way as to be as seamless as the joints between the flagstones on Havana’s famous Malecón.

After the 1959 revolution that made Fidel the country's ruler and after he had consolidated power and tightened his iron grip on the people, it was long assumed that Castro's death – thanks in part to his charisma, leadership and omnipresence in Cuban life – would lead to the dissolution of the communist regime on the island. 

Instead, "Raúl is very much in control," Brian Latell, a scholar at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy and author of two books on Fidel, told Fox News Latino. "Raúl has systematically reorganized the regime and filled the positions with his people."

The handover of power to Raúl Castro – prompted not by El Comandante's death, but by gastrointestinal surgery that Fidel recovered from without problem – allowed the younger brother to step into the role of Cuba’s next leader without having to deal with his brother’s death at the same time. The ensuing years have allowed Raúl to cement his power base in Havana, establish improved diplomatic relations with a number of global powers inlcuding the U.S. and , maybe most importantly, convice Cubans that the communist regime will outlive Fidel.

"Raúl’s Cuba in essence is Fidel’s Cuba, as there is no disparity," Larry Birns, director of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, told FNL.

And once Fidel stepped out of the limelight, he stayed removed from the corridors of power, allowing Raúl to implement a series of reforms meant to open – and save – the island’s collapsing economy.

Under Raúl’s leadership, the country has decentralized state-owned enterprises, legalized home and used car sales and let hundreds of thousands of people open small businesses or work for them. 

In fact, the departure of Barack Obama from the White House in January may end up having a greater impact on the life of the ordinary Cuban than Fidel's death does.

That's because Raúl Castro and Obama began normalizing relations between the longtime foes in December 2014 – a process that is ongoing and has put a large dent in the U.S. embargo and, as of this week, allows American citizens to fly to the island on commercial airlines and bring home Cuban cigars and rum.

U.S. companies can now export mobile memory devices, recording devices and software to a country with notoriously poor internet and telecommunications infrastructure.

"Right now Cuba is prepared to give away the store, but that does not mean they’re prepared to give away the government," Birns said.

Observers say that the diplomatic work done by Raúl is something that would never have been done when his brother was in power.

"Raúl is more pragmatic than Fidel," Latell said. "Fidel was always intransigent with improving relations with the U.S."

Obama's successor, real estate tycoon Donald J. Trump, however, has indicated that he intends to revoke the changes forged by Obama unless the Castro regime makes significant social and democratic reforms.

"If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people and the U.S. as a whole," he tweeted Monday morning, "I will terminate [the] deal."

Even if a sea change should take place on the island nation, Fidel Castro’s death does little to diminish his legend or his specter in Cuba. Even during his final years – when he was debilitated by a number of illnesses – his very existence still loomed large, and it will take a long time for Cubans of all stripes to forget that.

"It’s tricky to tinker with the legacy of 'The Great Leader,'" Latell said. "What’s going on in Cuba is comparable to what happened in the Soviet Union after Stalin or in China after the death of Mao. It will take years."

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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