Raúl Castro may be acting president but he is not sitting in his ailing brother Fidel’s office at Revolution Palace, feet on desk, barking out orders.

Since the 80-year-old Cuban president underwent abdominal surgery, temporarily relinquishing power a month ago, Raúl has worked from next door at the defence ministry as he has for 47 years – a signal his brother may return.

What the elder Castro suffers from is a state secret and so apparently is what the younger Castro is up to.

“I have always been discreet, that is my way, and . . . I am thinking of continuing in that way,” Raúl told the Communist Party daily, Granma, in his only public statement since taking power.

Cubans, fearful of the unknown and far more familiar with Fidel than Raúl, do not know what to expect from the stand-in leader. Even those who know and like Raúl admit the obvious.

“I think Raúl would be a good president because he is very sincere. When he says to you this is green it’s because it is green, but he does not have the vision, charisma and drive of Fidel,” said Francisca Reyes, who at 22 ran messages and cooked for Raúl’s band of revolutionaries in the mountains in the 1950s.

While no-one doubts Raúl’s Communist credentials, many foreign experts believe he wants to move Cuba away from the old Soviet model to a more open Asian one.

Brian Latell, an analyst who followed the Castro brothers for decades at the CIA, sees change coming regardless of whether the elder Castro is dead or alive.

“Raúl knows that he will not be in charge for too many years, and probably wants to leave a clearer, more positive legacy than some of those octogenarian Soviet leaders in the early 1980s,” said Mr Latell, author of After Fidel.

“If he indeed wants to adopt a tropical China model for Cuba, as I suspect he does, then he will likely decentralize the economy and loosen restrictions on foreign investors, while maintaining strict political control and promoting civilian reformists to senior posts.”

But will that really be possible with Fidel still around, asks Marifeli Pérez-Stable, vice-president for democratic governance at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “A much diminished but still functioning Fidel Castro is the worst possible scenario for Raúl and the successors,” Ms Pérez-Stable said. “The only platform that will gain them legitimacy is opening up the economy, and Fidel is adamantly opposed.”

Phil Peters, vice-president of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute policy group, believes both brothers presiding over a succession is the best scenario for the Communist leadership.

“During a long leadership transition, there would be no single moment when the Cuban people suddenly learn of Castro’s absence, no moment when his successors are suddenly and completely responsible for governing, and plenty of time to turn over the reins of government, and for Cubans to become accustomed to the change,” he said.

That is the worst possible scenario for the Bush administration and Cuban-American power brokers who have believed that after Fidel’s death Cubans would rise up to thwart continued Communist rule under Raúl.

Almost all experts agree recent events show they should rethink their views.

“Change will be gradual, far less dramatic than anybody imagines, and it will be on Havana’s terms,” said John Kirk, a Latin American expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

“The US role will have little impact – despite the keen interests of entrepreneurs wanting a piece of the action. They will find that there will be no Golden Arches or Wal-Marts sprouting up.”

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