HAVANA Raul Castro has kept Cuba stable and its economy growing in his first year in charge since his brother Fidel Castro was forced to step aside, but he has not delivered the reforms many Cubans hoped for.
The main achievement of the man the Bush administration dubs "Fidel Lite" has been to shatter the assumptions of U.S. government officials and Cuban exiles in Miami that without Fidel Castro at the helm, Cuba's communist state was doomed.
Some Cubans are disappointed that the more pragmatic of the Castro brothers has not done more to make one of the world's most centralized economies work better, although there is speculation that he might soon pick up the pace.
"He has moved slower than we expected, but I have no doubt there will be substantial measures before the year is out," said an economist and member of a new commission established to study property reforms in an economy that is 90 percent state-owned.
Since his brother stepped aside last July 31 after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery, Raul has merely tweaked the state-run system.
Farmers are being paid more and on time for their crops, customs controls for DVDs and car parts were recently lifted and the state media has become more critical of glaring cases of bureaucratic inefficiency and theft.
Buoyed by financial help from Venezuela and credits from China, the government has continued to invest heavily in transport, housing, waterworks and other infrastructure needing repair.
Raul also recently canvassed managers of state companies, local party leaders and economists, urging them to be audacious in their proposals to improve the economy's performance.
Complaints about state wages and prices, heavy regulation, poor transportation and housing are constants on Cuba's streets and in people's homes, as they have been for years.
FIDEL IN BACKGROUND
Rumors are circulating that Raul will parcel out state land to farmers, allow Cubans to open more small business, stay at tourist hotels, acquire cell phones and freely buy and sell their cars and homes.
Fidel Castro, who turns 81 next month, has not made a public appearance since his illness, although he has written a series of editorial columns in the state-run media and recent tapes of him being interviewed and meeting foreign allies have shown him looking stronger.
Cuba watchers say his recovery has put him back in a position where he can at least influence policy and possibly veto any changes he does not like.
"My sense is that out of deference and respect to Fidel, and to manage popular expectations of what he can and can't deliver, Raul will not push too hard for aggressive economic reforms," said Julia Sweig of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. "Nothing will happen too quickly."
Insiders have no doubt, however, as to who is the country's new chief executive, even if Fidel is still chairman of the board.
"I'm happy Fidel is getting better, but I'm more interested in the new guy, who is more active," a top ministerial advisor recently quipped.
Raul Castro's aides are far more visible than Fidel's team of movers and shakers these days, introducing a no-nonsense style on the bureaucracy, according to numerous sources.
"Raul uses existing mechanisms, demanding people do their jobs and if they do not, he replaces them," one Havana retiree and Communist Party activist said.
Washington is not happy at the political continuity in Cuba, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said the Bush administration would not tolerate a transition from one dictator to another.
Hal Klepak, a Canadian military historian and author of a recent book on Cuba's armed forces, scoffed at the U.S. view.
"I rate Raul's government as very good. He is firmly in charge and has established a new and interesting style, with no micromanaging, normal work hours and hopes for change," he said.