By Frances Robles | McClatchy Newspapers
Three months after Cuban leader Fidel Castro handed the reins of power to his brother Raul, triggering shocking uncertainty on both sides of the Florida Straits, there are early but important signs that Raul has taken a different track than Fidel.
Raul’s few speeches have stuck to issues like worker productivity and corruption rather than to Fidel’s firebrand denunciations of Yankee imperialism. Two Cabinet members have been replaced, and the government has announced a potentially critical plan to study flaws in the communist system. In August, he signaled a willingness to work closer with the United States.
Another difference between the two brothers: no massive street marches to mark this anniversary or protest that U.S. action; no revolutionary hoopla to welcome a new shipment of Chinese buses or rice-cooking pots.
Overall, Fidel’s younger brother appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach on more significant changes: wait until Fidel dies, and see what he will be able to do.
``Announcing any kind of policy shift would be upstaging Fidel,’’ said William LeoGrande of American University. ``Before doing something like that, they would wait until Fidel was back and had blessed it.’‘
The stunning July 31 announcement that Fidel Castro was so sick with an intestinal ailment that he had ``temporarily’’ surrendered his powers for the first time in 47 years sparked waves of speculation about his much less charismatic brother’s ability to maintain control of the island.
But during his three months in charge, Raul has defied naysayers and proved that the system could survive with the 80-year-old Fidel on the sidelines - alive but looking thin and sickly in the latest video released last weekend.
Raul Castro, Cuba’s defense minister for nearly five decades, has long been known to strive for institutional efficiency. The military he runs is a respected institution that is the engine behind much of the nation’s economy.
But some Cuba experts say it remains unclear whether Raul has either the acumen or political backing to run the country in the long run.
``They have demonstrated that nothing has changed,’’ said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. ``The key issue is: How long can Raul keep it together?’‘
Gomez added that when Fidel dies, Raul will be forced to make a modicum of changes in hopes of buying himself at least six months before Cubans start making strong demands for improvements in their daily lives.
Cubans on the island are largely concerned about low wages, high prices, food shortages and decrepit housing. If Raul is able to make at least a start toward improvements, he is unlikely to face massive street unrest, experts agree.
For now, many experts believe Fidel, despite his infirmity, is still calling the major shots. Amid speculation about cancer, Fidel’s illness remains a state secret.
``He’s very much involved. ... It may not be minute to minute, but certainly day to day,’’ Gomez said.
Fidel Castro said he remains in close touch during a video he released Saturday to quash talk that he had died.
Among the surprise moves experts say must have been the work of the ailing Fidel: the appointment of former interior minister - and reputed Raul rival - Ramiro Valdes as minister of communication.
American University Professor Philip Brenner said among the most dramatic, if subtle, changes was an Oct. 21 announcement that an academic committee would study the system for flaws that fuel corruption and inefficiencies. Previously, such widespread problems were blamed on people, not the system.
Cuban media reports quoted some of the academics as raising the possibility of introducing market competition to increase efficiency.
``This is very dramatic,’’ he said. ``I’d say this was one of two or three very significant things that mark a revitalization.’‘
Experts said the academic research team also was indicative of Raul’s low-key style of seeking a consensus - a far cry from Fidel’s autocratic approach to management. Compared to his brother’s showmanship, Raul has given only a handful of public addresses in the three months.
``The most interesting thing is that he hasn’t been more of a public figure,’’ LeoGrande said. ``Being president requires symbolic leadership and demands a more public presence than being vice president. I’m surprised he hasn’t come to grips with that.’‘
Raul will likely continue his backstage approach, at least until he has a clearer sense of Cuba’s future, experts say.
``At the end of the day, Fidel is still the president,’’ LeoGrande said. ``Even if he has turned over power to Raul, he’s still the jefe.’‘
Translation: Fidel’s the boss.