From enforcer to reformer, Raul Castro takes over

HAVANA Mon Feb 25, 2008 8:59pm GMT

HAVANA (Reuters) - From firing squad commander to pragmatic reformer, Cuba's new leader Raul Castro has steadily softened his style in the half-century since he helped his brother Fidel Castro seize power in a 1959 revolution.

Raul Castro, who was named as his sick brother's successor as Cuban president on Sunday, was once known as an iron-fisted ideologue who executed Fidel Castro's orders -- and enemies -- ruthlessly.

Now aged 76 and faced with a new set of problems, Raul Castro has tried to project a softer side, which many Cubans hope will lead to an improvement in the communist country's weak economy, if not in human rights as other world leaders demand.

For years he has lived in the shadow of 81-year-old Fidel Castro, whose bearded figure, long speeches, army fatigues and defiance of the United States earned him iconic status among leftists across the globe.

The less charismatic Raul Castro did the dirty work backstage, disposing of soldiers loyal to U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and cracking the whip to keep wavering communist apparatchiks in line and passionate about the cause.

As Fidel Castro's strongman and defense minister, he trained a rag-tag bunch of guerrillas into a feared army that fought "anti-imperialist" wars abroad, most notably in Angola where Cuban soldiers helped defeat South African troops.

Analysts have said that while Fidel Castro was the creative genius of the Cuban revolution, it was Raul Castro who made it happen.

The younger Castro converted to communism first and, together with Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, persuaded Fidel Castro to cozy up to the Soviet Union.

REFORM HOPES

The strength of Raul Castro's ideology and his enforcement of it made ordinary Cubans wary of the now bespectacled, flabby-faced grandfather of eight who has led the country since Fidel Castro handed over power after emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.

However, he has raised hopes of change by inviting Cuba's 11 million people to complain openly about economic inefficiencies, poor services and shortages of consumer goods.

At meetings over the last 19 months, Raul has cracked jokes with students, occasionally changed from his military uniform into a less threatening gray suit and offered to open Cuba up to more inward investment.

He even suggested opening talks with the United States, which has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for 46 years.

Such reforms seemed radical a few years ago under Fidel Castro but are not as much of a surprise under his brother, an admirer of China's economic development via capitalist-friendly communism.

Raul Castro downsized the army by 80 percent and redirected soldiers to domestic duties like producing food when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, taking with it the subsidies it used to send to keep Cuba fed.

"Beans are more important than guns," he famously declared.

He also opened Cuba to tourism, now a staple of the Caribbean nation's economy and one of the areas potential foreign investors are most interested in for the future.

He showed a canny understanding of capitalism by building up the army-controlled financial conglomerate GAESA, which owns an airline, communications and computing groups, luxury tourist hotels and a car hire company.

Some commentators see Raul Castro as a stop-gap leader to manage the transition between Fidel Castro and a new generation, saying he lacks the flair, health or ambition to run the one-party state.

Already he has delegated more tasks to other party leaders than detail-obsessed Fidel Castro ever did and is said to be open to different ideas put forward by his juniors.

But whatever his leadership style, most analysts agree on one thing -- as long as Fidel Castro is alive, Raul will not step too far out of his shadow.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kieran Murray)

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