HAVANA (Reuters) - President Raul Castro returns to the birthplace of the Cuban revolution this week for a speech that will be watched for news on what some consider another, quieter revolution now taking place on the socialist island.
Instead of the armed rebellion that brought his brother Fidel Castro to power in 1959, Raul Castro has launched reforms aimed at revitalizing Cuba's state-run economy while keeping it under the control of the ruling Communist Party.
His changes have raised hopes among Cubans and speculation about the depth and breadth of a transition that began in earnest when he formally replaced his brother as president in a February vote by the National Assembly.
Castro's speech, to be given in the eastern city of Santiago on Saturday, will mark the 55th anniversary of the July 26, 1953 rebel assault which Fidel Castro led on the nearby Moncada army barracks.
The attack was a military disaster, with many rebels killed, but it began the revolution that ended with the elder Castro toppling U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The annual July 26 speech is the most important of the year for Cuba's leader, and will be the second for Raul Castro, who provisionally took charge when Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery in 2006 that forced him to step aside.
Fidel Castro's last public appearance was his speech on July 26, 2006.
Since taking over, the 77-year-old Raul Castro has lifted caps on wages and restrictions on goods including cell phones and computers, and promised to eliminate "excessive prohibitions" to productivity.
Broader changes are underway in agriculture, where Castro has decentralized decision-making and distribution, granted additional land for private farmers and cooperatives and is now offering them credits to obtain farm machinery.
His steps away from hard-line socialist doctrine of the past have heightened speculation that he wants to follow China's lead and steer Cuba toward market socialism. Officials deny it, but Castro has already pushed for better management and productivity and more money for good workers.
"Socialism means social justice and equality -- but equality of rights, of opportunities, not income," he said in a recent speech to the National Assembly.
Cuba watchers will be listening to his speech in Santiago for indications of Castro's next steps, how far he wants to go with reforms and how fast he hopes to get there.
So far, the pace has been deliberate and the biggest changes mostly in agriculture, but many believe wider reform is needed to improve the economy and the lives of Cubans.
"I'm looking to see what he does with the rest of the economy. He has diagnosed big problems and prescribed small measures that don't measure up to Cuba's challenges, especially when it comes to generating jobs and ending income equality," said Cuba expert Phil Peters at the Lexington Institute in Virginia.
Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst now at the University of Miami, said bigger reforms have been slow in coming because of the nature of the Castro brothers.
"Cuba's new leadership is under pressure, perhaps intensifying, to show some tangible progress in economic performance," he said. "But Raul's innate caution, and his brother's opposition to most structural reforms, have impeded dramatic change so far."
Whether Fidel Castro, 81, viewed as more of an ideologue, is holding his brother back is a subject of much debate.
He has stayed out of sight for two years, but maintains a high profile as a prolific column writer and meets with visiting leaders. His columns occasionally hint at disagreement with his brother, but both have denied any discord.
Raul Castro told the National Assembly recently he asked his brother to review a draft of a speech and got back word from an aide that Fidel Castro had said he was "in complete agreement" and "it's perfect."
"Congratulate him," he told the aide, "because he has a very intelligent brother who learned everything from him."
That speech contained dreary news for Cubans -- Castro said wage increases may be slowed by the stumbling world economy, the retirement age may be raised five years and more taxes must be paid.
But maybe this week's speech will be better, said construction worker Ibrahim Zamora, 33.
"I don't have any illusions, but it's possible he'll say something new on July 26," he said. "We still haven't drunk the milk he talked about last year."
Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Michael Christie and Kieran Murray