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Raúl Castro, Leader With a Freer Hand

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Fidel Castro is resigning after nearly a half-century as Cuba's president. The ailing leader says he will not accept a new term when the newly elected Cuban parliament meets on Sunday. Video by AP

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 19 -- Raúl Castro has long operated in the backstage of Cuban politics. But his public record, which has emerged over his 19 months as interim president, suggests he might pursue reforms to allow more political and economic latitude on the island.

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Rough-edged and uneasy in the spotlight, Castro, 76, appears to have been laying the groundwork for a larger reconfiguration of Cuba's economy since he took over from his ailing older brother, Fidel, in July 2006.

He has publicly mocked Cuban farmers for failing to cultivate rich farmland, held public forums for citizens to criticize the government and set in motion reforms to streamline the country's famously inefficient bureaucracies, especially those involved in distributing food to Cubans who face constant shortages.

If picked by Cuba's newly elected National Assembly in a presidential vote scheduled for Sunday, Raúl is almost certain to preside over a government based more on a collective style of leadership, and less on personality. A career military man, Raúl is known more for his organizational skills than his charisma.

"He reminds me of an 82nd Airborne sergeant major," said retired U.S. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who met with Raúl in Havana in 2002. "He's gruff, sure of himself. He's a soldier."

There is a slim chance the assembly could choose among two of Fidel's other favorites -- the young, ideological foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, or the more cerebral and technocratic vice president, Carlos Lage. The two have helped Raúl run the country since Fidel became ill.

In the past 12 years, with varying degrees of success, Raúl has pushed reforms his brother had been reluctant to embrace until the fall of the country's biggest financial backer, the Soviet Union.

The younger Castro started slowly, first allowing private ownership of small food markets. Then Raúl, who has been defense minister since 1959, shrank the military. He converted some of his top generals into businessmen so that they could run the tourism empire he built after persuading his brother to allow more foreign investment. The military now presides over a lucrative tourist trade, cutting partnership deals with European hoteliers.

In another apparent break with his brother, Raúl offered a surprise in 1994 when Cubans were fleeing the island. He took to the podium to calm a population struggling to feed itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Beans," he told a crowd in Havana, "are more important than cannons."

That concise slogan became his most memorable line. Suddenly, a country that had envisioned itself as a place under siege was admitting that feeding its residents meant more than building its military.

As the new flow of tourism dollars eased the crisis, Raúl generally slipped out of the public spotlight again, remaining a mystery to outsiders and to the Cuban people he now leads -- the island's great enigma. He is known as a practical joker, a family man, a guy's guy who drinks whiskey with his generals and dotes on their kids; and he is, as he once described himself, "Raúl the Terrible," the Cuban revolution's executioner in chief, the feared enforcer of the all-powerful Cuban state.


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