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Raul Castro steps out from Fidel’s shadow

Communist leader takes Cuba’s reins temporarily

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Raul Castro

Raul Castro

HAVANA — Raul Castro doesn't enjoy his older brother's appeal, but as he takes over the leadership of communist Cuba, he can count on the power he amassed during a half-century as the island's No. 2 man.

Even before Monday's announcement that Fidel Castro has temporarily relinquished power to his brother while recovering from intestinal surgery, Raul Castro had been emerging from the shadows, appearing prominently in a state media campaign to better acquaint Cubans with the man chosen long ago to be their next leader.

Granma, the Communist Party daily, republished a tribute to Raul Castro, calling him "the chief, the leader, the comrade, the man" who "has brought us great affection and instruction across the decades."

State television has repeatedly showed the bespectacled defense minister in his olive green uniform and cap — a head shorter than his brother, beardless with a graying mustache, addressing troops and reviewing military parades.

Even if his presidency becomes permanent, it is seen as unlikely to foreshadow the leap into democracy that U.S. policy envisions for Cuba after Fidel.

While sure to preserve the communist state founded in 1959, Raul Castro has indicated greater flexibility on the state-controlled economy.

He oversaw experiments with limited market reforms after the Soviet Union's collapse and on a 1997 visit to China, expressed interest in its free-enterprise socialism. He has also called for more cooperation with the United States on terrorism, drug trafficking and immigration.

The apparent readying of Fidel Castro's brother for the succession is a reminder that two of the world's remaining communist regimes, Cuba and North Korea, are family affairs, in which the public has no real say in who rules them.

Fidel Castro made it clear just three weeks after seizing power that he wanted his brother to succeed him.

"I do it not because he is my brother — the whole world knows how much we hate nepotism — but because on my honor I consider him to have sufficient qualities to replace me tomorrow in case I die in this struggle," he said in a quote from Jan. 21, 1959, resurrected in the Granma tribute.

In a note read on Cuban television Monday night, Fidel Castro said his health was "ruined" by gastrointestinal bleeding due to the stress of recent public appearances. While the note said the handover was "provisional," it also said celebrations of his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 will be postponed until December, suggesting that Raul Castro may remain in power for months at least.

At 75, Raul Castro is among the few still alive who were with Fidel Castro 53 years ago when they launched the revolution with a military barracks assault.

In the early days Raul Castro led rebels in Cuba's eastern mountains. He now leads about 50,000 troops armed with Soviet-era tanks and MiG fighter planes— down from the 180,000 he commanded at the height of the Cold War. He appears to have his generals' loyalty, and seemed more comfortable chatting and joking with them after a recent military ceremony than he did giving a speech minutes before.

In a 2001 interview he advised the United States to make peace with Cuba in Fidel Castro's lifetime, because afterward "it will be more difficult."

But on Tuesday, White House press secretary Tony Snow suggested it made no difference.

"Raul Castro's attempt to impose himself on the Cuban people is much the same as what his brother did," he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American and senior member of the U.S. House International Relations Committee, was harsher. "A skunk is still a skunk, and a dictator is still a dictator," she said. "There will be no future in a democratic Cuba for the Castro brothers."

Communist Party leaders insist there will be no transformation, just the succession laid down in the constitution, which says the presidency passes to the first vice president of the Council of State — the position held by Raul Castro.

Even before Castro's illness was announced, Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst who has studied the Castro brothers for decades, speculated that the transition may already be under way.

"Raul has been asserting personal control over the Communist Party apparatus, highlighting its likely enhanced role in the future," wrote Latell. "He has been focusing intense and sympathetic media attention on himself."

The younger Castro suggested in June that Cuba may need a more collective style of leadership in the future, and there are signs his advice is being followed. For instance the party has resurrected its powerful secretariat, disbanded in a budget-cutting drive 15 years ago following the collapse of Cuba's patron, the Soviet Union.

With 12 members, including the Castro brothers, the secretariat aims to reassert eroding party control over the bureaucracy through daily involvement and decision-making on ideological issues.

Wayne Smith, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1979 to 1982, doesn't see Raul Castro as a stopgap president.

"I would think that he would remain in power for some time," Smith said. "He's been the vice president for more than 40 years. He's understudied the job and he has the credentials that no one else has. ... On the other hand, it's likely to be something of a collective leadership. He would be consulting with others."

In Miami, meanwhile, thousands of Cuban-Americans questioned whether the Cuban government was telling the full truth about the intestinal disorder that prompted Fidel Castro to cede power temporarily to his brother.

"Basically, we are seeing what the Cuban government is saying, but we don't know if that is true," said Ninoska Perez of the Cuban Liberty Council, an anti-Castro exile group. "I think they are just gaining time. For all we know, Castro may already be dead or critically ill."

Reports that Fidel Castro had ceded power led a pot-banging, cigar-smoking, flag-waving crowd to take to the streets of Miami's Little Havana on Monday night.

In Utah, Juan Garcia, a refugee from Cuba, speaking in Spanish, said he believed Fidel Castro's condition to be "pretty bad."

Garcia, who has lived in Utah for just six months, said whatever the president of Cuba commands, people do.

He expressed some surprise that Fidel Castro ceded his authority to his brother, Raul. He doubted that Raul Castro would be able to hold power.

Garcia is among a small community of 275 foreign-born Cubans in Utah, according to the 2000 Census. There are a total 940 people of Cuban descent in Utah, according to the census.

Contributing: Deborah Bulkeley, Deseret Morning News