Raul Castro, the pragmatist, takes Cuba's helm

The National Assembly elected Fidel's brother Sunday to be president in a vote that signals minor changes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Successor: Raul Castro gestures at a session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba where he was elected president. Mr. Castro replaces his brother Fidel Castro who retired as president on Feb. 19.
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In selecting Raul Castro as the new president of Cuba Sunday – after Fidel Castro resigned this past week after nearly 50 years at the post – Cuba's power structure chose continuity and consistency.

Raul Castro has effectively held the job for the past 19 months, since his brother Fidel Castro underwent abdominal surgery, with little disruption politically or socially. Coming from the same ideological fold, Raul created the Cuban Revolution alongside his brother and has been his "right-hand man" ever since.

Raul Castro is also known as a pragmatist and delegater, traits that fit his personality, analysts say. But, they note, he doesn't command the same type of support that his brother has for a half century.

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Cuba experts expect his presidency to be marked by a collaborative approach that draws on the expertise of those around him, including a rising cadre of younger leaders. But on Sunday, none of those leaders moved up the ladder. In fact, hard-line communist party ideologue Jose Ramon Machado Ventura was named first vice president, or Cuba's No. 2.

While no one expects much change, if any, on the political front, the new government is expected to inch toward economic reforms that many consider necessary to the viability of the island nation.

"Symbolically there is a sense that they will be in good economic hands managerially," says Susan Eckstein, a professor at Boston University and author of "Back from the Future: Cuba Under Castro."

Many expect the first economic changes to take place in the agriculture sector. Reforms include raising prices on products for farmers to increase production of milk and beef and give them legal rights to their own land.

In a speech in July last year, Raul Castro made several bold statements about the state of Cuba's economy. William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington, says that criticisms of the inefficiency of bureaucracy and inefficacy of public transportation are signs that changes could come in a post-Fidel Cuba. Raul Castro has already made some moves to address such issues, including buying a fleet of Chinese buses and paying off the debt the government owed the country's farmers.

The government also announced that cash, often paid under the table to Cubans working for foreign corporations, will be taxed – a recognition that the salary structure is inadequate, he says.

Faith in Raul Castro's ability to manage the economy emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, which was supplying Cuba with oil and was a key trade partner. As a survival mechanism, Fidel Castro called it a "special period" of austerity. But the era also included opening up state enterprises, particularly in tourism and agriculture. The economy collapsed by more than 30 percent in this period, and while poverty is still rampant, the economy eventually stabilized.

Raul Castro and Fidel Castro have worked side-by-side since their attempt to attack the Moncada Army barracks in 1953. They rose to power together six years later, forcing dictator Fulgencio Batista from power on New Year's Day 1959. Observers say that Raul was always seen as more of a hard-liner, but he showed little of the flare that has made Fidel Castro an international icon, and that has sustained his presidency.

Many analysts expect Fidel Castro to stand in the way of any deep reforms, as long as he continues to exert influence in essays published in the state-run media. Raul Castro has given speeches suggesting economic reforms or a willingness to negotiate with the US under certain terms, only to be contradicted by his older brother days later.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Washington, says Fidel Castro's opinions cause an executive paralysis – and no one expects him to stop opining while he is alive. Just days after he resigned last week, Fidel Castro published comments ridiculing the US election and US calls for political change in Cuba.

"It is psychological pressure on the system to keep it as it is," says Mr. Vargas Llosa. He points to the fact that Raul Castro's rhetoric – on both the economy and the negotiating table – has not matched his actions. "He has not done anything to back those words and it can only be because of the paralyzing effect Fidel's [opinions] are having on the bureaucracy."

As the transformation is officially sealed, some hold out hope that under Raul there will be more room for a new generation of leaders. They include:

Carlos Lage: As one of six vice presidents, many say he has carried out the day-to-day chore of running the country, particularly the economy. Analysts have long seen him as the third most powerful man in Cuba, after the Castro brothers. A doctor-turned-technocrat, he is considered the architect of the revamped economy after the Soviet Union fell.

Ricardo Alarcón: He was reelected Sunday as the head of the National Assembly, a post he has held since 1993. Before that he spent most of his life in foreign affairs, as Cuba's former ambassador to the United Nations and as foreign minister. He is among the most prominent politicians in Cuba. Still, his reelection to head the National Assembly was considered significant because of his age, 70. Some expected a younger, more reform-oriented leader might replace him.

Felipe Perez Roque: He was the youngest contender for a vice presidential slot, so would have been a nod to younger Cubans. But observers say he is an ideological stalwart, a "yes man" of sorts to Fidel Castro.

These three are often named as the most serious contenders for president once Raul Castro, who is 76, steps down. Even if he remains healthy, observers says it is unclear whether he wants to hold onto power as his brother did.

In the next few years many observers expect a more collaborative government, born of reality and style. No one can replace the role that Fidel Castro alone filled. "And Raul is more consultative, more willing to delegate authority," says Mr. LeoGrande.

Some analysts disagree. Vargas Llosa says the only real power, after the Castro brothers, lies with the military, which continues to be run by Raul Castro and which controls most economic activity. He calls his surrounding team "puppets." He says a younger general might emerge as the next leader.

To solidify a real transformation, though, change must come from the top down and the bottom up, says Ms. Eckstein.

She says many in the younger generation – those who grew up with the collapse of the Soviet Union and whose opportunities have contracted as a result – are disillusioned. "They didn't participate in the 'making' of the revolution," she says. "Most have family members in Miami."

Some analysts say this sentiment could fuel expectations for change that the next government would have to contend with. But no one expects the type of social movements that formed in Eastern Europe. "Civil society is so incipient," she says.

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