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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 21:22 GMT 22:22 UK
Fidel's presence still keenly felt in Cuba
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Raul Castro in Revolution square Ignacio Agramonte in Camaguey, 26 July 2007
Raul Castro runs the day-to-day governing of Cuba

Cuba without Fidel Castro at the helm: many wondered whether communism in the Caribbean could survive without him.

There was dancing in the streets of Miami, as anti-Castro exiles wrongly assumed the end was nigh.

A year later, and outwardly little in Cuba appears to have changed after emergency surgery forced the 80-year-old Fidel to hand over power for the first time since his revolution in 1959.

It was a smooth transition, but so far stability has not led to any improvement to people's daily lives.

Low wages, food shortages and poor public transport are the complaints that dominate conversations here much more than questions of political freedom.

Practical and pragmatic

The world's longest serving defence minister, General Raul Castro has been his brother's right-hand-man since they were both guerrilla fighters in the Sierra Maestra, struggling to overthrow the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

In those days, Raul was considered a hardline enforcer who was a dedicated communist long before Fidel.

He doesn't have Fidel's charisma, but Raul is considered the more practical and pragmatic of the two.

Cubans 54th anniversary of the Revolution in Camaguey, Cuba, 26 July 2007
Cubans may celebrate, but there are food and fuel shortages

This has raised expectations that some economic reforms may be on the way.

In an hour-long keynote televised address before a 100,000 strong crowd last week, Raul acknowledged there were problems with the economy and changes were needed.

"To have more, we have to begin producing more... to reach these goals, the needed structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced."

He also said that the country may have to turn once again to foreign investment.

Elder statesman

Many Cubans and Western observers believe this to be a signal that Chinese-style reforms are finally on the way; an opening up of the economy while maintaining political control.

As caretaker president, Raul has also offered to sit down at the negotiating table with the United States. That's been rejected and under US law, there can be no lifting of the embargo against Cuba as long as either brother is in power.

Most Western observers believe Raul is running day-to-day government. What is less clear is who is setting the political agenda.

For the moment, Fidel has taken on the role of elder statesman as he continues to recuperate from a series of stomach operations.

Poster of Fidel Castro on Havana street, 27 July 2007
Fidel Castro's influence looms large behind his brother's temporary rule

Recent pictures show that he has put on weight and appears to be getting stronger.

In recent months, Fidel has increasingly made his presence felt through regular newspaper editorials, called Reflections of the Commander in Chief.

Many are attacks on his ideological nemesis, US President George W Bush. Only a few have dealt with internal politics. All are read in their entirety on nightly television news and the first collection has been published in book form.

In one of his editorials last month, he suggested that what the economy really needed was a renewed sense of revolutionary dedication.

"The standard of living can be improved by raising knowledge, self-esteem and dignity of the people. It will enough to reduce waste and the economy will grow."

Fidel Castro's hand may not be on the tiller but his presence remains immense.

Many believe that there can be no major changes in Cuba without his approval, much less against his wishes.



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