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Questions Surround Cuba's Raul Castro

In Cuba, Vice President Raul Castro has maintained a low profile since assuming executive authority while his older brother, Fidel, recovers from intestinal surgery. Cuban officials insist the transfer of power is only temporary, but many Cuba-watchers see the exercise as a dress rehearsal for the eventual permanent passing of the reins to Raul Castro, Fidel's designated successor. Just how Raul Castro would lead, and where he would take the country is an open question.

For decades, Raul Castro has lived in the shadows of the charismatic Fidel. The two brothers have been virtually inseparable since childhood. They plotted together in a failed coup attempt in 1953, after which they both went to prison. They departed for Mexico on their release, and later fought together in Cuba's 1959 communist takeover. Commonly viewed as Fidel's right-hand man, Raul has served in a variety of high-ranking government posts, including vice president and defense minister.

Raul, 75, is now the focus of attention, yet shows no eagerness to step into the limelight during the temporary transfer of power.

A former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Wayne Smith now heads the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. Smith, who continues to visit the island as a researcher and has met both Fidel and Raul on numerous occasions, says the brothers are very different people.

"Raul has always been thought of as a rather dour, not terribly imaginative, not charismatic like his brother, which is true enough," he said. "But Raul Castro does have a sense of humor. He is pragmatic, and, as a matter of fact, I think Raul will be much more open to a relationship with the United States, and an opening to the rest of the world than was his brother."

Cuba-watchers note that Raul Castro has carried out some of Fidel's harshest orders, including crackdowns on dissidents on the island. Yet it was Raul who successfully argued for limited economic liberalization in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, famously noting at the time that "beans are more important than bullets. More recently, when asked what will transpire after his brother's death, Raul replied that Cuba will see a transition to a better form of socialism and a more democratic society. He did not elaborate.

At the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, executive director Frank Calzon sees Raul Castro as a pale shadow of his older brother, and predicts his rule of the island will be brief.

"Whatever one might say about Fidel, Raul is not up to [does not possess] the evil genius qualities that his brother has. It is very unlikely that General Castro will be able, for any length of time, to keep control of Cuba," he explained.

Calzon notes that other, younger members of Cuba's communist hierarchy likely harbor ambitions of leadership. Some Cuba-watchers say a newly-inaugurated Raul Castro may be tempted, at least initially, to rule with an iron fist to demonstrate his authority and intimidate potential rivals.

But just what will happen is open to debate. In fact, given that Fidel Castro is only four years Raul's senior, should he recover fully from his current ailment, there is the possibility that the president could outlive his brother.

In Washington, the Bush administration is taking a wait-and-see approach, especially during the current temporary transfer of power in Havana. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

"The fact of the matter is, this is a pretty closed decision-making circle," he said. "And it is very opaque as to what is actually going on."

McCormack adds, however, that the United States stands willing to aid Cuba in a transition to democracy if and when the people demonstrate their desire for change.