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.
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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.
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.
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.