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With Fidel gone, questions arise about what Raúl Castro will do

Cuban President Raul Castro addresses the United Nations General Assembly on its opening day, Sept. 28, 2015. The death of Fidel Castro on Friday has raised questions about what Raul, who assumed presidential powers in 2006 and officially became president in 2008, will do now. [Josh Haner | New York Times]
Cuban President Raul Castro addresses the United Nations General Assembly on its opening day, Sept. 28, 2015. The death of Fidel Castro on Friday has raised questions about what Raul, who assumed presidential powers in 2006 and officially became president in 2008, will do now. [Josh Haner | New York Times]
Published Nov. 27, 2016

MEXICO CITY — For half a century, as Fidel Castro transformed Cuba into a communist state and sparred with the United States, his brother Raúl worked in his shadow, the authoritarian leader's disciplined, junior partner.

But by the time the elder Castro died Friday night, Raúl Castro, who assumed presidential powers in 2006 before getting the official title in 2008, had transformed Cuba into country that was unrecognizable in many ways — and yet remarkably the same.

Raúl discarded some of the precepts that Fidel had considered sacred, chipping away at the communist scaffold his brother had built. And in a stunning embrace that caught the world off guard, he negotiated an end to the 50-year diplomatic standoff with the United States that Fidel had fiercely maintained.

It is now solidly Raúl's Cuba, an island where millennials talk to their cousins on Skype, where restaurant owners hustle for zucchini at privately run farms and where Americans clog the streets of old Havana.

Over all this, he has a firm hold on power, secured by trusted military leaders in vital positions and a new economic course of his making in which private enterprise plays an essential — but unthreatening — role.

Still, Fidel died at a time of great uncertainty. Cuba's regional benefactor, Venezuela, is collapsing economically. And many Cubans are trying to reach the United States while special immigration privileges are still in place.

With Fidel gone, a lingering question may now be answered: Did the weight of his legacy hold Raúl back, preventing him from substantially dismantling the cherished system his brother had constructed, or were the slow, halting steps toward change a reflection of Raúl's own desire to insert new life into the ailing Cuban economy — without weakening the structures of state power?

Enrique López Oliva, a retired church historian in Cuba, expects change. While he did not rejoice in Castro's death, he said, he found himself excited about the possibilities that it could bring for Cuba's future.

"It's the end of one era and the beginning of another," he said. "The death itself, we were waiting for that to happen at any moment. But now it feels like a new phase is about to begin." While Raúl is firmly in control, and seemingly in good health, many people inside and outside the country wonder what kind of Cuba comes after him.

Raúl, 85, has pledged to step down in 2018. His vice president and former minister for higher education, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 56, is expected to fill the presidency. But in the opaque, tightly guarded circles of Cuban politics, it is impossible to know for sure.

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