HAVANA — When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba on Monday, he'll find a very different island from the one his predecessor, John Paul II, visited in 1998. A Castro is still in charge, but it's Raul calling the shots now, and Cuba increasingly reflects his vision.
Cuba remains an autocratic nation with limited freedom of expression and stands alone as a dictatorship in a hemisphere swept by democracy in recent years. But Raul Castro, who took power when his elder brother Fidel stepped aside in 2006 because of failing health, has moved to pave the way for a Cuba without its octogenarian leaders.
Quietly, and in some cases not so quietly, Raul, who ran the Cuban armed forces and turns 81 on June 3, has showed the door to most in Fidel's close cadre, replacing them with his own military allies. In a 2009 Cabinet reshuffle, he pushed out almost all of Fidel's remaining appointments and consolidated his grip on power. He's stacked organs of governance with military men and now is moving to reform the economy.
When Fidel outlived what his critics hoped was a life-ending illness, the perception within and outside of Cuba was that Fidel would return to calling the shots. That has proved wrong, specialists say.
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"A lot of the hardliners were convinced that Fidel was still going to be controlling things from behind. Now I think there is no doubt Raul has established himself and is in charge," said a senior Obama administration official involved in Cuba policy who demanded anonymity in order to speak freely.
The changes Raul seeks range from scrapping or scaling back subsidies to state-owned companies to starting the downsizing of the Cuban government by what is expected to be at least half a million jobs. Most recently, the Cuban government has announced a liberalization program that, if carried out_ and that remains a big "if" for now_ would allow self-employment, private farming and perhaps the most shocking reversal of the Cuban revolution, the buying and selling of real estate.
Amado, a 30-something Cuban who sports a lapel pin with a Cuban and an American flag, gave Raul credit for recognizing that the country is changing and moving to allow greater economic openings. He pointed and counted seven small family-run shops and restaurants on the main road leading from the international airport.
"It's like when you are a kid that's eaten his parents cooking, and now you want to go out and provide for yourself," he said.
Unlike Fidel, Raul maintains a low profile. Where Fidel is a synonym for long-winded speeches, Raul eschews them, often letting his vice president address the nation. Where Fidel enjoyed meeting journalists late at night to discuss world affairs, Raul is reclusive. Actor Sean Penn, an unusual choice of journalist, in 2008 was granted what was called Raul's first interview by a foreign journalist since the start of the Cuban revolution in 1957.
Penn described Raul as "warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit." In that rare interview, Raul let loose that Cuba has been in permanent contact with the U.S. military since 1994. It suggested that he is a known quantity to the U.S. Defense Department.
After ruling over a period that spans 11 U.S. presidents, the personal foibles of each Castro brother are well known.
But a tolerance bordering on an embrace of business is what most marks Raul's rule as distinct from his brother's. Fidel allowed some small-scale self-employment during the mid-1990s, a time that Cubans call the "special period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba's primary mentor and support. But the opening was at odds with a revolution that abolished small businesses and self-employment in 1968, and the timid openings were largely rolled back after oil-rich Venezuela stepped in under President Hugo Chavez to become Cuba's life-support system beginning in 1999.
"Fidel hated the private sector, didn't trust it, didn't like it," said William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist and dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington. "Raul Castro is much more pragmatic in that regard."
Raul embraced capitalist management principals during the late 1980s, pushing the Cuban military into self-reliance in food production and the manufacture of parts needed for military machinery. His late wife, Vilma Espin, who died in 2007, studied chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s. One of his daughters married the chief of the economic division of the Cuban armed forces.
Raul's rule has surprised, in part because his public image had been that of a stalwart ideologue, the more rigid of the two brothers.
"The funny thing to me, when I was there we considered him the hardliner, head of the military, head of the interior ministry, he always did Fidel's bidding," said Vicki Huddleston, a retired U.S. ambassador who headed the U.S. interests section in Havana from 1999 to 2002.
Pointing to Raul's role as the chief contact with the Soviet Union for much of Cuba's contemporary history, Huddleston and colleagues thought Fidel was more tolerant of human rights activists than Raul. That was partly because the older Castro feared a crackdown would damage his image with European and Latin American intellectuals, and Raul was on a tight leash.
"He had the reputation in the past of being the true communist," she said. "I was always very, very skeptical that Raul was going to be the nice guy, to open and change Cuba. First of all, I don't think he has enough imagination to do it."
Huddleston remains skeptical that the Castro brothers can afford to go too far with reform. "They can't really survive if they do major changes, so they have to do it incrementally, but you know one thing leads to another," she said.
Yet today it is Raul pushing Cuba toward an economic opening, that if not U.S.-style capitalism at least more closely resembles other Latin American economies, which have varying degrees of state involvement in the economy.
"The changes are already making a difference," said Philip J. Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a center-right security think tank based in suburban Washington. "It's not complete by any stretch. He's proceeding deliberately and in the eyes of many Cubans, far too slowly, but already there has been more than a doubling in the number of private entrepreneurs."
Helping drive Cuba toward a Vietnam- or Burma-like economic opening is the unexpected but real possibility that Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, whose economic generosity has kept Cuba afloat since 1999, could exit the scene through electoral defeat or death.
Chavez has been operated on twice recently for an unspecified cancer, and in photographs he clearly looks like a man not well. Venezuela is rife with rumor that he might not even survive until that nation's October elections. The possibility of life without Chavez's oil money gives greater urgency to Raul's reforms.
Obama administration officials believe that'd be a game changer.
As it stands, if Raul follows through on the promises made during April's Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba and brings real reform, it could be the break with the past that brings Cuba back into modernity. It could also a 50-year long, near-complete trade embargo with Cuba first imposed by the United States in 1960 and expanded in 1962.
"Once they go down that path, it's very difficult to roll that back," the senior Obama administration official said of Cuba's reform, cautioning that while it looks promising it remains uneven and in its infancy.
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