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Stepping into big brother's shoes?

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Fidel Castro and Raul Castro (1 July 2004)
Raul Castro (r) has a reputation as an organiser who gets things done

Cuba's newly elected National Assembly has chosen acting President Raul Castro to officially take over the post he has filled ever since his elder brother Fidel was taken ill in 2006.

As a young man, Raul became a dedicated communist long before his brother.

He has none of 81-year-old Fidel's charisma but is considered much more of a pragmatist, a good organiser who knows how to get things done.

He will have to steer this communist island in the Caribbean through unchartered waters in an unpredictable period of economic and political renewal.

Driving force

The most notable thing about the day the "commander in chief" announced he was finally to retire was just how subdued everyone was.

The charismatic Fidel Castro had been the driving force here for almost 50 years.

The majority of Cubans were born after the 1959 revolution and have known no other system or leader.

The only real indications of just how historic a moment this was were the long queues of people lining up at the newspaper stands.

A Cuban man reads a newspaper in Havana on 22 February, 2008
Ordinary Cubans are wondering what the future holds

Small groups would then gather to pour over Fidel's letter of resignation, asking in hushed tones what it meant.

"It's a bit like when your father dies," said Luis Morejon, who joined the communist party in the early days of the revolution and today works in the tourist industry.

"I know Fidel hasn't died only retired but it leaves a huge gap, you stay silent because you don't know what's going to happen."

If there is one subject that Cubans are talking about it's the economy.

Times are tough. The decades-long American embargo has taken its toll.

So too has almost half a century of centralised state control.

Economic mess

In a keynote speech last year, Raul Castro acknowledged that wages were insufficient to meet people's daily needs and that agricultural production, especially, was a mess.

He spoke of "structural and conceptual" changes to come, raising expectations that economic reforms are on the way.

He also initiated a period of internal debate.

At closed-door sessions up and down the island people were encouraged to come forward a speak openly about what changes they felt were needed to make the system function more efficiently.

The BBC obtained a video tape of one of these sessions, with students questioning the head of the National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon.

You need to work for two days just to buy a toothbrush
Eleicer Avila
Cuban student

He was asked about restrictions on foreign travel and the internet and on the lack of campaigning for parliamentary elections.

But the issue which drew the biggest applause was that of the dual currency system here.

There is one peso for the Cubans and another, the convertible peso or CUC for tourists and foreign businessmen.

The convertible dollar is worth about the same as an American dollar, the Cuban peso just four US cents.

The average Cuban salary of 400 pesos a month is worth about $16, yet almost everything available in the shops has to be paid for in the convertible CUC's.

"Why has our economy moved to convertible pesos when our workers are paid in the national currency?" asked Eleicer Avila, a student, during the meeting.

"You need to work for two days just to buy a toothbrush."

Luis Morejon also believes that sorting out the dual currency is probably one of the biggest challenges facing the next president.

"I took part in many of the debates, it was really exciting," he said. "We discussed all the troubles we've got and how we would like Cuba to be in the future."

"The most important thing is to have just one money in Cuba so that people can buy things in shops."

Comrade Fidel

Most observers, though, caution against expecting either rapid or far reaching reforms.

FIDEL CASTRO
Born in 1926 to a wealthy, landowning family
Took up arms in 1953, six years before coming to power
Brother Raul was deputy and Che Guevara third in command
Has outlasted nine American presidents
Target of many CIA assassination plots
Daughter is a dissident exile in Miami

And while the economy may be tinkered with, there are no signs of any major political changes being considered in this one party state.

The other question is, just how free a hand will the new leader have?

On Friday Fidel Castro published his first article since stepping down.

Before, these newspaper editorials were entitled "Reflections of the Commander in Chief". Now the by-line has changed to "Comrade Fidel".

In the piece the former leader said he was relieved to be stepping down and the night before the decision he had slept better than ever.

He also said he had planned to take a break from writing these editorials but then changed his mind.

"I had thought not to write a reflection for least in 10 days, but I had no right to remain silent for so long."

Raul Castro must know that his brother Fidel will still be keeping a close eye on what is going on.

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