HAVANA Cuban President Raul Castro turned 77 on Tuesday, 100 days since officially taking charge of a government that has awakened hopes for change in Cuba after 49 years under his brother Fidel.
At an age when most men have retired, Raul Castro is taking steps to modernize Cuba's state-run economy, which is winning praise from Cubans but also criticism from opponents, especially the United States.
When he took power provisionally in July 2006 following Fidel Castro's intestinal surgery, he had a reputation for being dour, business-like and much less charismatic than his bombastic brother. There were doubts the Cuban people would fully accept him as leader.
But Raul and his reforms now dominate political discussion in Cuba and in some ways he has become the embodiment of hope that better days lie ahead.
The government says Fidel Castro, 81 and ailing, is still heavily involved in decision-making, but Cubans mostly credit Raul with the popular reforms.
"I can see the change in my own life because now I have more work. There are more cars in the street, more tourists, people go out more," said Ismael, a 62-year-old parking attendant in the Cuban capital who preferred not to give his full name.
"Raul wants to know what people think and want, and we have seen change in very little time."
Since officially taking power, Raul Castro has allowed public sales of cell phones and computers for the first time, encouraged public debate, decentralized agricultural policy to encourage more production and opened up tourist facilities that were previously off-limits to Cubans.
The government has bought buses to improve public transportation and removed a ceiling on wages to create incentives and improve economic performance.
"I built hotels and then I couldn't get close to them," said Julio, 32, a construction worker. "Now I can't go because they're expensive, but at least they don't prohibit me."
"People have been surprised by the changes Raul has made. Transportation has improved, and that was impossible to imagine six months ago," said pharmacy worker Rita del Carmen, 49.
PROPPING UP REVOLUTION
There also are Cubans who say Raul Castro's reforms are public relations ploys aimed only at propping up an aging revolution.
"Nothing has changed for most people. They're just trying to hold on to power," said Pedro, a 60-year-old hotel worker.
Even those who support the changes say more must be done.
"The government has to keep doing things so that we feel more free in our country and to improve the economy," said Julio.
The Bush administration, pointing out that the new Castro government has said nothing about political reforms, does not buy the notion that Cuba is changing, said U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in a recent interview.
"What needs to change is that they release political prisoners ... they need to allow for fundamental human rights, they need to allow for free elections, for freedom of expression," he said.
In a speech, President George W. Bush ridiculed the reforms as a "cruel joke."
But Cuba expert Philip Peters at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia said in a conference call that Cubans have "got now, for the first time in a long time, a sense that this government is doing something, is addressing some of their grievances and politically that has put Raul Castro in a much stronger condition."
Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington predicted that "a year from now we're going to look back and track even more changes, more substantive changes, than we've seen to date."
"The truth is, this is not your daddy's Cuba, and pretty soon it's not really going to be Fidel's Cuba," she said.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Anthony Boadle)