Acting Cuban President Raul Castro is promising to introduce changes on the island a year after taking power. Castro's older brother Fidel turns 81 today and has not appeared in public since having emergency surgery in 2006. Raul Castro is beginning to put his own stamp on Cuba's communist government. But his pledges to implement economic reforms and improve relations with the United States fall short of the dramatic political changes predicted by many Cuban exiles in Florida 12 months ago. Steve Mort reports from Miami for VOA.
Many Cuban exiles in Miami hoped that when Fidel Castro was hospitalized at the end of July 2006, just before turning 80, he would not live to celebrate his 81st birthday.
"Please don't turn 81. That's what I would wish. Don't turn 81. Eighty is the last one, OK?" said a Miami resident.
But pictures showing an improving Mr. Castro, and regular essays from the communist leader continue to appear in Cuba's state newspaper.
Raul Castro took the ailing leader's place at the most recent National Revolution Day celebrations -- the first time Fidel Castro has missed the event in 48 years.
But Jamie Suchliki from the University of Miami says Raul Castro's speech indicates the Communist Party maintains a strong grip on power. "People are afraid of him. The military is totally loyal to him ? the party apparatus he controls. So he has the levers of power and the ministry of interior and the security. So I think he can keep the pieces together for an indefinite period."
In Cuba, day-to-day life remains unchanged, despite predictions that Fidel Castro's illness would prompt an uprising against communist rule.
Raul Castro is even outlining his own long-term agenda, including Chinese-style economic reforms, particularly in agriculture. He admits that food shortages and low wages mean Cubans often struggle to get by. Cuban government statistics show that approximately 60 percent of farms are state-run, but nearly 80 percent of Cuban-produced food comes from private growers.
Paolo Spadoni from Florida's Rollins College says Raul Castro has pledged to attract foreign investment and implement "structural and conceptual changes" to fix the problem.
"Raul Castro will probably introduce some limited and gradual market reforms,? he says. ?So I do see some changes, but I don't see a complete and sudden change of the system".
While showing a willingness to consider economic reform, Raul Castro has a reputation as a political hard-liner.
But Paolo Spadoni says he has allowed limited dissent in Cuban politics since taking the helm. "A bit more space for political debate ? debating the system, the legalities, the corruption, the shortcomings of the system. There has been a bit more of that and some Cuban academics have been quoted in newspapers providing some sort of criticism of the system. This is something new".
Raul Castro has also made overtures towards the United States, even calling for talks with the U.S. once President Bush leaves office.
Fidel and Raul's sister, Juanita Castro, lives in Miami. She believes reforms may happen even without a change in government in Havana. "Right now, Raul is the only thing that we can have at this moment. Perhaps he can produce the changes that the Cuban people need, that our country needs, in order to live in the future in democracy".
Meanwhile, Fidel Castro turns 81 on August 13th and he says he is being consulted on every government decision.
And with little sign Raul Castro is willing to hold democratic elections, Cuban exiles seem resigned to the fact that a transition to democracy may be many years away.