Adalberto Roque, Getty Images
Raul Castro

HAVANA — While Fidel Castro historically mesmerized his countrymen with dramatic, extemporaneous speeches stretching over hours, brother Raul is known for his businesslike, even boring delivery, rarely bothering to look up from prepared texts.

A full head shorter than his brother, he doesn't even look like Fidel, sporting a mustache rather than a dramatic beard and lacking his sibling's Romanesque profile and athletic physique.

But many believe Raul, 76, has been long underestimated in his brother's huge shadow. Though he has yet to deliver on any of the economic reforms he has hinted at while leading a caretaker government since 2006, Cubans seem excited and hopeful that Raul's pragmatic style of leadership could bring real improvements to their everyday lives.

They appreciated Raul's frank acknowledgment that Cuban salaries are too low for basic necessities, even in a communist society where food, rent, education and health care are heavily subsidized. They smiled and nodded when Raul angrily criticized officials who made excuses for a transportation system on "the point of collapse."

U.S. policy has long sought to undermine the succession from Fidel to Raul, despite his role as Cuba's constitutionally designated heir. Cuban exiles in Miami and Washington bureaucrats have dreamed that Cuba's communist system would die with Fidel, opening the door to a U.S.-style democracy and free markets. President George W. Bush even appointed a commission plan the transition.

But dispassionate Cuba watchers say Raul will likely rule the nation for the foreseeable future.

Raul "is the linchpin in Fidel's succession strategy," former longtime CIA analyst Brian Latell wrote in his 2002 book, "After Fidel."

As the world's longest-ruling defense minister, Raul can count on the loyalty of top generals, the control of up to 50,000 active troops and an arsenal including Soviet-era tanks and fighter planes.

He also is a political hard-liner who belonged to a Communist youth group even before the revolution. His older brother didn't publicly embrace socialism until 1961.

"Raul is younger than I, more energetic than I. He can count on much more time," Fidel said when he officially designated Raul as his successor at a Communist Party congress in 1997.

Raul was deeply involved in Cuba's military involvement in Angola and Ethiopia during the 1970s. And since Cuba lost financial backing with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Raul has guided the Cuban military's emergence as a leading economic force, operating tourist sites, becoming a major food producer and experimenting with limited market-style reforms.

Although he prefers to work behind the scenes, Raul led thousands of chanting, flag-waving citizens who demanded the return in 2000 of little Elian Gonzalez, whose mother drowned while fleeing with him to Florida.

In a rare 2001 interview, Raul encouraged the U.S. to make peace with Cuba while Fidel was still alive.

"I am among those who believe that it would be in imperialism's interest to try, with our irreconcilable differences, to normalize relations as much as possible during Fidel's life," Raul told state television.

Unlike his brother, Raul has long shared low-key communications with U.S. military counterparts — information on hurricanes, immigrant smuggling, drug trafficking and relations with the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.

In his first public statement after Fidel fell ill, Raul said Cuba was open to normalizing diplomatic relations, but only "on an equal plane." He later extended the olive branch again, saying that "After almost half a century, we are willing to wait patiently until the moment when common sense prevails in Washington."