The highest officials of Cuba's Granma province had gathered last summer to give their year-end reports. Each bureaucrat and Communist Party apparatchik rose to recite a favorable statistic: Harvests were good, the fishing nev- er better, the children well-educated and disease nonexistent.
Suddenly the word "bull--" rocked the air, witnesses recalled. All eyes turned to a 63-year-old man, dressed in the uniform of a Cuban general.
"Bull--," repeated Raul Castro. "I don't want to hear lies. I want to hear the truth. I have been traveling the length and breadth of this province and what you are telling me is not what the people say."
The people were saying they had no work, no fertilizer, no spare parts, no animal feed and no gasoline. The education they received did not get them a job.
Within a week, General Castro had dispatched one of the Communist Party's highest officials to straighten out the mess in Granma. Jose Ramon Balaguer, the party's chief of ideology, has been in the province ever since.
The story demonstrates the pragmatism of Fidel Castro's increasingly influential younger brother as the nation struggles with its worst economic crisis this century.
As defense minister he heads the nation's 160,000-man army. And as second secretary of the ruling Communist Party, only Fidel is more powerful than he in the party's apparatus. Should the 67-year-old Fidel die, Raul is legally the man to replace him.
Though he's spent his life in the shadow of his adored older brother, the low-keyed, unpretentious general has emerged as the dominant force in bringing order to the chaotic Cuban economy.
In the months since the Granma incident, Raul's military has been put in charge of food production, including the sugar crop, Cuba's principal source of foreign exchange.
The armed forces are now in charge of creating the nation's first cash reserve, whose resources can be tapped only by Fidel. Army funds also have been lent to the civilian economy.
And Raul Castro's army and the Interior Ministry it controls now dominate a commission that effectively rules Havana. "Our specific task is defense, but defense encompasses everything, beginning at the present time, with food production for the population," the defense minister said in a September interview with Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.
Raul Castro's emergence coincided with the economic crisis beginning in 1989 with the loss of nearly $5 billion in Soviet-bloc aid and the continued hardship caused by the 34-year-old U.S. economic embargo.
The crisis erupts
The most telling manifestation of the crisis occurred last summer when scores of enraged Cubans rioted on Havana's waterfront. Caught unawares, the stunned regime opened its social safety valve in August and September, just as it did with the bigger 1980 Mariel exodus and 1973 airlift.
This time 30,000 disgruntled Cubans fled the island in makeshift rafts in hopes of a better life in the United States.
The incident exposed the regime's remoteness from the people, suggesting more explosive and embarrassing incidents lay ahead. As in the case of the Granma provincial officials, the regime has been lulled by the Pollyanna views of bureaucrats anxious to keep their jobs and has relied on the population's fear of the state security network.
The people who boarded the rafts, many of them lawyers, doctors and academics -- the chief beneficiaries of the revolution -- showed that the system had broken down. The government was neither believed nor feared. Those who remained were trapped in lives that promised nothing. Women were selling sexfor the dollars of foreign tourists, Ph.D.s were driving taxis, a pound of pork was equal to half a month's wages, the bicycle was becoming the chief mode of transportation.
Government guarantees of a job, housing and adequate food no longer applied. The country couldn't afford its socialist pretensions. Cuban officials began likening the nation's shift to the mixed economy of China, whose Communist rulers enjoy the benefits of capitalism but who still maintain their Marxist orthodoxy.
Yet Cuba's bet that foreign joint ventures companies, centered on tourist hotels, and its own biotechnology industry would make up for the loss of Soviet largess was shaky at best. By spring the government announced the layoff of more than 400,000 workers. How would the unemployed eat? What kinds of jobs were available?
Cuba's army of conscripts could hardly be immune to the crisis. Would it stay together?
The regime had no choice but to bend with the economic winds, and pushing for practical changes was the army's top general, Raul Castro, who reportedly announced in July that "Beans were more important than cannon."
Unlike Fidel Castro, the defense minister tends to listen to people's problems, without a preconceived solution. And unlike his older brother, he is always on the go, visiting the island's far recesses, talking with the troops and ordinary citizens.
What the complaints made obvious was that the nation -- one of the prime farming regions of the world -- had a surplus of food. The surplus was being sold for dollars on the black market to ravenous urban areas, or it was bottlenecked in bureaucratic red tape or stolen by corrupt officials.
What he proposed was the rejuvenation of an old idea: that farmers could sell their surplus crops for cash. A similar experiment -- so-called "farmer's markets" -- was discarded in the early 1980s despite its popularity. Fidel Castro believed the markets led to corruption and hardly fit Cuba's self-image as one of the world's few remaining Marxist exemplars.
Last summer Raul Castro broached the idea to his brother, who immediately rejected the capitalist scheme on grounds of socialist purity.
It was a sensitive subject. A grass-roots petition to bring back the farmer's markets provoked a three-hour harangue from the maximum leader at the Fourth Communist Party Congress in 1991.
Still, the younger brother persisted. The plan would put money into the hands of the cash-starved farmers while answering one of the city-dwellers' prime complaints -- food -- he argued.
What if the markets weren't called "farmer's markets," said Raul, but "agriculture markets"?
Fidel grinned. Well, OK, he said, but just don't call them "farmer's markets."
Within a few days the unpopular policy against the markets was reversed and the change announced by Raul Castro.
A visitor to Cuba in March could see the "agriculture markets" had measurably improved the lives of average citizens. People could now buy chicken, pork, even rabbit and other commodities that had been considered expensive delicacies only months before.
Moreover, the military, with its own farms and means of transportation, was able to sell surpluses in the markets, undercutting farmers trying to reap huge profits.
The effect, in part, was to strengthen the national currency. In August 1994, the peso was trading at 110 to the dollar on the black market. The rate stood at 35 pesos to the dollar earlier in June.
The markets' success symbolizes Raul Castro's sense of practicality and his position as one of the rare men in Cuba who can get Fidel Castro to listen.
It also reveals that the army is one of Cuba's few institutions capable of administering large undertakings without stealing the proceeds or bungling its operations. Within its ranks are agronomists, supply specialists, administrators, engineers, technicians -- the kinds of men whose civilian counterparts had fled the country long ago.
In the midst of the current crisis, Raul Castro brought out of retirement dozens of senior military men to run companies that are jointly owned by foreign investors and the Cuban government. One of the more successful is a West German-Cuban company manufacturing ship containers. It is
managed by a retired Cuban general.
Depending on the army
Though it has been reduced by 40,000 men since Cuba's Angola adventure ended in 1991, the army remains a self-sufficient organization that has long played a role in Cuba's conversion to a mixed economy. It controls hotels, health resorts, car rental agencies and even a documentary film company.
Politically, it emerged as a pre-eminent force in 1989 after the trial and execution of a popular army general and top officials in the Interior Ministry over drug-trafficking charges. The Interior Ministry -- which runs the police and security services -- was virtually taken over by military men loyal to Raul Castro.
The show trial was not Raul's finest hour. During a speech explaining the mess on national television he appeared to ramble, indicating to some that he was drunk. Rumors spread by allies of his deposed enemies alleged he was covering up for drug profits pocketed by the Castro brothers themselves or that he was a homosexual.
But his lifestyle is hardly that of a drug Mafioso. His car is a small military model and he lives in an unpretentious apartment overlooking Havana's Chinese cemetery. He and his wife, Vilma Espin, a prominent party official and frequent hostess for the bachelor Fidel, are the parents of three normal children. That is considered a miracle in a ruling class that tends to produce eccentric youngsters of limited ability.
Unlike his more bombastic brother, Raul Castro possesses a self-deprecating sense of humor. Friends describe him as "a man's man" who loves to dance and "live it up." He also is a lover of fine horses.
Yet he is a behind-the-scenes kind of person, having lived so long in the shadow of one of the world's most charismatic men. If Fidel Castro should die or step aside, Raul appears to lack the popular support to rule alone and would share power with members of the ruling elite, men such as Carlos Lage, the economics minister, Ricardo Alarcon, the head of the National Assembly, and one or two army generals.
The main task before him is to fashion a new reality in a society that no longer is beholden to the government and which is increasingly capitalist and critical.
The thousands of furloughed workers present the regime with an unprecedented challenge, one that caused the government last month to permit 130 categories of small businesses, such as small restaurants.
By creating a de facto capitalist class, the government is also creating a political counterforce to its socialist ideals, one that is bound to challenge its very rule.
Whether the pragmatic Raul Castro can continue insisting that the army is the ultimate shield for socialism and is itself the instrument of the Communist Party is beside the point.
The army, like the powers that rule it, can redefine socialism in whatever terms it chooses, even in Chinese.
John M. McClintock was The Sun's Latin American correspondent from 1987 to 1992. He has been to Cuba twice since September.