Raul Castro raises hopes of economic change in Cuba

HAVANA Tue Feb 19, 2008 1:22pm EST

Cuba's acting President Raul Castro gestures during the inauguration of the International Book Fair in Havana February 14, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

Cuba's acting President Raul Castro gestures during the inauguration of the International Book Fair in Havana February 14, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Enrique De La Osa

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Raul Castro, Cuba's likely new leader after his ailing brother Fidel Castro bowed out on Tuesday, is a pragmatist more concerned with putting food on Cuban tables than spreading revolution abroad.

The outwardly dour Raul Castro, 76, lacks his elder brother's charisma and has lived in his shadow for decades.

But he is seen as a ray of hope by some Cubans fed up with political rhetoric and the daily grind of getting ahead in a battered state-run economy.

As acting president since his brother was sidelined by illness almost 19 months ago, Raul Castro has encouraged Cubans to openly debate the shortcomings of Cuba's communist system.

If confirmed as president on Sunday as expected, he will face a Herculean task of solving Cubans' economic hardships.

While he has so far made few changes, Raul Castro has raised expectations that Cubans will soon be allowed to freely buy and sell their homes, travel abroad and stay at hotels and beaches where only foreigners can step foot.

In December, the camera-shy army general said Cuba had "excessive prohibitions", a sentiment shared by most Cubans who need government permits for almost everything they do, from buying a car to working as a clown or a shoe-shine.

Raul has acknowledged that wages paid by Cuba's socialist state are too low. He has called for "structural changes" in agriculture to increase food output and reduce Cuba's reliance on imports, and said Cuba was open to new foreign investment.

Yet Raul Castro is not expected to follow China's example and free up a market economy, at least not while his brother is alive. And he has promised more socialism.

"The challenges we have ahead are enormous, but may no one doubt our people's firm conviction that only through socialism can we overcome the difficulties and preserve the social gains of half a century of revolution," he said late last year.

Raul Castro extended an olive branch to Cuba's arch-enemy, the U.S. government, saying in July that Havana was open to talks to end more than four decades of hostility, but only when President George W. Bush has left the White House.

The younger Castro was flung into the role of running one of the world's last communist states when his brother was forced to step aside on July 31, 2006, after emergency intestinal surgery.

Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since then and the 81-year-old revolutionary announced his retirement on Tuesday.

"BEANS, NOT CANNONS"

As defense minister since the brothers led a 1959 revolution, Raul Castro built the armed forces into a formidable fighting force that defeated South African troops in Angola.

Once considered an implacable Stalinist and the Kremlin's most reliable friend in Cuba, Raul is said to have become more pragmatic after the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed Cuba to the brink of economic chaos.

"Beans are more important than cannons," Raul said during the crisis that left the air force parking its MiG jet fighters with the help of horses for lack of fuel.

He cut the armed forces to one fifth of its peak of 300,000 troops, and backed reforms that allowed limited private initiative to flourish in the 1990s.

An admirer of China's economic prowess, Raul is believed to favor loosening up state controls of the Cuban economy while maintaining one-party communist rule.

Forced to become self-sufficient after the loss of billions of dollars in Soviet aid, the Cuban military under Raul's savvy management was the first to introduce capitalist business practices in Cuba and has a big stake in the economy today.

It has emerged as Cuba's most efficient institution and owns lucrative enterprises in agriculture, industry and tourism, including hotels at beach resorts, an airline, a bus fleet, car rentals and a retail shop chain.

Cuba experts say he is a good talent spotter who surrounds himself with capable officials and is good at delegating.

Born on June 3, 1931, Raul Castro was raised -- like Fidel Castro -- on their father's large farm in eastern Cuba.

Since their guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra mountains and the triumph of their revolution on Jan 1, 1959, Raul Castro has always been his brother's most trusted right-hand man.

His late wife Vilma Espin, who fought as a guerrilla, founded the Cuban Federation of Women and served as Cuba's unofficial First Lady.

His daughter Mariela Castro is a sexologist who has defended the rights of transsexuals and is pushing legislation to allow gay marriage in Cuba.

(For special coverage from Reuters on Castro's retirement, see: here)

(Editing by Kieran Murray)

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