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Defense Experience May Help Raul Castro As Next Cuban Leader


Cuban leaders are expected to name Raul Castro as the next president, replacing his older brother Fidel. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that, as defense minister, Raul has wide experience with the nation's economy and key government institutions.

The resignation of Fidel Castro concludes the term of one of the world's longest-serving heads of state. It also poses new challenges for the island's communist government as it struggles to address growing frustration among many Cubans about the economy and social institutions.

Since undergoing intestinal surgery more than 18 months ago, Mr. Castro has not been seen in public. Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami, says Fidel Castro may have been nudged by the insiders to step down.

"Cuba's inner circle could have possibly asked him [Fidel], it was in the best interests of the Cuban regime and the Cuban revolution, for him to step aside," he said.

Mr. Castro chose his brother, Raul, in July 2006 to serve as interim president while he recovered. Now, analysts say Raul, who also serves as defense minister, will be chosen to become the next Cuban president by the 31-member Council of State that meets on Sunday.

If named as president, Raul will bring different skills to the office than his 81-year-old brother, says Frank Mora, professor of security strategy at the National War College in Washington.

"There will be less ideology and more pragmatism as to how institutions work," he said.

Mora notes that Fidel Castro was famous for giving long speeches that attacked Cuba's enemies and defended the government's communist ideals. In contrast, he says, Raul has given only one major speech as interim leader and it focused on improving bureaucratic efficiency.

The 76-year-old defense chief is also known for working closely with top advisers on policy decisions, says Phil Peters, Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute near Washington D.C.

"His reputation is that he works collegially. He is in charge and he makes decisions. But he works collegially, listens to people and solicits opinions and likes to hear before he decides," he said.

In recent months, Raul also has welcomed public debate about ways to address corruption, government inefficiency and economic inequality.

Cuban officials have encouraged similar discussions in the past, but Peters says earlier efforts resulted in few real changes. Peters says Raul's latest call for reform seems to be different.

"The fact is that he as a politician has raised expectations to a large degree that he is going to change economic policy. And 2008 is the year we are going to get the answer, either he is going to deliver, or he is going to disappoint," he said.

Raul's experience as military chief for the last four decades may help him speed up economic reforms on the island. A chief source of Cuba's political power, the military is wielding a growing influence on key industries.

Frank Mora says Raul Castro also has overseen a military-led program aimed at boosting economic efficiency across the nation.

"And as a result the profile, the influence of the military in the economic sectors, particularly the most dynamic ones, like tourism, is pretty prevalent," she said.

Experts say Raul's economic reform plan may help improve conditions for many Cubans, but it is unlikely to change relations with the United States. U.S. officials have echoed the sentiment, saying they do not expect U.S. sanctions against Cuba to be lifted anytime soon.

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