- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2011

HAVANA — When Raul Castro acknowledged recently that it was time to hand over power to younger leaders, few were expecting the 80-year-old president to name somebody even older than himself as his No. 2.

But at least one figure from Cuba’s post-Revolution baby boom is on the rise: Marino Murillo Jorge has been charged with implementing make-or-break economic reforms designed to both loosen the state’s ironclad control and save Cuban socialism.

The blunt-talking, 50-year-old economist stands at the head of a very small class of relatively prominent, relatively youthful Cuban officials who have broken out of obscurity and taken up positions alongside the silver-haired generation that has ruled this island since 1959.

A stocky man in an XXL guayabera shirt, Mr. Murillo is more technocrat than charismatic orator, but he just might have a key role in the island’s post-Castro future — if he stays in favor that long.

Mr. Murillo’s age sets him apart from most of the other 14 members of the Communist Party’s ruling council, which is headed by Raul Castro and First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, also an octogenarian.

Rapid ascent has sometimes been perilous under Fidel and Raul Castro. In 2009, two rising stars thought to be possible successors, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage, were fired and shamed in the official news media before disappearing from the public eye.

Still, Raul Castro said at a Party Congress in April that the time is near when a new generation of leaders must take the reins, and he announced term limits for all political offices.

He said officials erred in the past by promoting the wrong young people, not by undercutting them, and that leadership changes could be in store at a party gathering in January.

“The very top level of government and party leadership remains almost entirely in the hands of the revolutionary generation, of the oldest generation,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst with the Virgina-based Lexington Institute. “So the task remains to bring younger leaders into the top leadership.”

And yet the only two new appointments to the national party’s ruling council in April are relatively young: Mr. Murillo and 46-year-old Havana Communist Party boss Mercedes Lopez Acea.

Up-and-comers in influential positions elsewhere include Lazaro Exposito, the 50-something regional party chief in Santiago de Cuba, and Miguel Diaz Canel, the 51-year-old higher education minister.

Both Mr. Exposito and Mr. Diaz took up those posts in 2009 in Raul Castro’s government.

Mr. Murillo is Raul Castro’s economic czar, tasked with guiding Cuba through what is arguably its greatest challenge since the “special period” of the early 1990s, when billions in aid and trade from Moscow disappeared along with the Soviet Union.

Few details about Mr. Murillo are a matter of public record, including basic questions such as where he lives, whether he’s married or if he has any children.

Multiple requests by the Associated Press to interview Mr. Murillo or other officials were not granted, and his bare-bones Communist Party bio gives only his date of birth, education and a brief rundown of his prior posts.

Mr. Murillo was born in 1961, two years after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution and as the bearded leader was proclaiming the socialist nature of his government. He was active in the youth wing of the Communist Party.

Trained as an economist, he began his career at low-level government jobs and rose gradually through several ministries. Mr. Murillo joined the Communist Party in the early 1990s and studied at the military School of National Defense, though his position in the armed forces is not known.

He was also a professor at the Central University of Las Villas and studied in the former Soviet Union. Mr. Murillo’s style is far from academic, however. His speech is simple, and his body language is more befitting a bureaucrat or accountant.

His longtime ties to Cuba’s party, military and government officialdom are an advantage as he works with the old guard to institute reform, said University of Denver lecturer Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban-born economist.

And Mr. Murillo’s low-key manner could help him avoid the fate of politicos such as Mr. Perez Roque and Mr. Lage, whom Fidel Castro accused of having unseemly ambitions.

“With little apparent aspirations for power, Murillo has developed a reputation as a cautious reformer,” Mr. Lopez-Levy said.

In 2006, Mr. Murillo received his first top-tier assignment as interior commerce minister amid rumors of mismanagement under his predecessor.

State-run news media quoted Mr. Murillo as saying he was prepared to go through inventory burlap sack by burlap sack to crack down on theft from state warehouses.

Still, he was practically unknown until he became economy minister in early 2009, chosen by Raul Castro to navigate the waters of economic reform without capsizing the revolution’s achievements in health, education and welfare. That December, he became a member of the Council of State.

The following year, he appeared before parliament to explain the economic changes that would affect everything from transportation and tourism to the subsidized monthly ration card, which Cubans rely on for many basic goods. Mr. Murillo answered questions directly and confidently.

“This seems complicated but it’s not that complicated,” Mr. Murillo said of a new tax code under which thousands of newly authorized independent workers would pay a sliding scale based on their earnings. “Those who have to pay will figure it out quickly.”

The sessions were broadcast nationwide and cemented Mr. Murillo’s arrival.

“The Cuban people saw him for a day and a half on television last December when he explained and defended the new policies in the legislature, including exchanges with Raul Castro,” Mr. Peters said.

“He dealt with such sensitive matters as layoffs and the reduction of subsidies, always with the assuredness of a man with political backing from on high.”

In March, Mr. Murillo was promoted to head a commission overseeing both the Economy Ministry and the economic changes. Among his tasks is to improve efficiency, slash bloated state spending and allow greater space for small private enterprise.

Mr. Murillo’s political staying power may be closely linked to how well Cuba weathers that storm. While it is too early to anoint him as a possible successor to the Castros, no other young leader enjoys as much power and prominence.

“He’s a figure who’s clearly very trusted by Raul Castro,” Mr. Peters said. “He’s working at the center of the most important strategic initiative of the country, and he is the person of the next generation whose profile has increased more than anyone else’s. Where that leads, who knows?”

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