HAVANA — HAVANA -- It was a side of Raul Castro that Cubans rarely see.
Known as a dour, distant and austere general, Cuba's interim leader spoke Wednesday evening to hundreds of university students about his youth, his leadership style and his older brother, the ailing Fidel Castro, whom he described as "irreplaceable."
After remaining mostly in the shadows since Fidel Castro ceded power to him in late July after undergoing surgery, Raul Castro explained in the nationally televised speech that, unlike his older brother, he is a man of few words.
Further distinguishing himself from his brother, Raul Castro said he is delegating authority to civilian leaders and has encouraged debate even among his top generals before making major decisions.
"The best decisions will always come from these discrepancies," said Castro, who was seated with other Cuban leaders at the closing session of the University Student Federation's annual conference.
"They all give opinions. They all discuss and, in the end, if I see that there is not a true majority consensus, we don't reach any conclusions as long as there isn't any pressing emergency," Castro said.
The appearance was one of the first times Castro has spoken publicly about his role as Cuba's interim leader and appeared to lay the groundwork for moving toward the post-Fidel Castro era while remaining loyal to Cuba's communist system.
The stories Raul Castro told about his youth - including school pranks and quarreling with his brother - also appeared to be aimed at softening his image among Cubans, who recall that Raul Castro executed many opponents during Cuba's revolution.
"He's trying hard to present a much more compassionate image to the Cuban people," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of After Fidel, which details the relationship between Raul and Fidel Castro.
"He doesn't have anything resembling Fidel's legitimacy, charisma and popular support," Latell said. "He's further along in consolidating his position with the Cuban leadership. He now has to reach out to the people."
Waving a pen as he spoke, often pausing for effect and speaking in a raspy voice without notes, Raul Castro, 75, appeared to be at ease in his role as acting commander in chief.
At one point, he drew laughter as he recounted trying as a boy to ride a horse bareback after watching someone else accomplish the feat.
"I ended up with all my bones on the ground," Castro said. "There was this little old farmer that helped me stand up and told me, 'You see, he who imitates fails.'"
Raul Castro made it clear that he will not copy the leadership style of his brother, who has run Cuba for 47 years but is ill and might never return to power.
"Fidel is irreplaceable," Raul Castro said. "I know it because I've known him forever."
Minutes earlier, Castro had told a story illustrating his vulnerability and stubbornness. He recalled traveling with his mother to visit Fidel and Ramon, his eldest brother, at their Roman Catholic boarding school.
Raul Castro said he was having such a good time playing ball with his brothers - "it was like paradise," he said - that he told his mother he was not going home. He was 4 years old.
He persuaded his mother and the school administrators to let him stay, even though he was too young to attend school. "There was no classroom for me. I did whatever I wanted," Castro said as the audience applauded.
The first night away from home, he said, he threw a tantrum because he didn't have his bottle.
"I had one every night to go to bed," Raul Castro said. "One of the teachers had to go to the pharmacy and buy me my bottle."
Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute think tank, said no one can verify whether Raul Castro's stories are true.
"But if he said that falling off a horse taught him to be true to himself and not follow blindly the path of one who went before him - in this case his brother - then that's an important signal," he said.
Gary Marx writes for the Chicago Tribune.