The appointment of Fidel's brother as Cuba's president may actually bode well for reform on the island.

Last week's appointment of Raúl Castro to succeed his brother Fidel as president of Cuba has sent pundits and democracy advocates into a deep gloom. "Raul Castro has killed all hope that a transition to the rule of law and a market economy will start anytime soon in Cuba," wrote Alvaro Vargas Llosa. Before Sunday’s National Assembly meeting, it was widely expected that a younger--and more progressive--generation would be tapped for top positions in the government. Instead, the half-dozen vice-president posts were entirely filled by historicos, those who fought in the revolution, including 77-year-old hardliner José Ramón Machado Ventura and 72-year-old businessman Julio Casas Regueiro.

Many interpreted these appointments as a sign of continued stagnation on the island, with the average age for the president and his six vice presidents remaining in the 70s. The decision to pack the government with aging party hardliners has also been widely viewed as evidence of Fidel’s continued influence in the government and unwillingness among the old guard to share power, a perception Raúl encouraged in his acceptance speech by stating that Fidel would be consulted on “decisions of fundamental importance for the nation's future, including defense, foreign policy and socio-economic development.”

But focusing on the age and revolutionary credentials of Cuba's new leaders misses their most salient characteristic: They are all Raúlistas, fervent devotees of Raúl Castro. The Cuban government has long been divided between Fidelistas and Raúlistas. As the Minister of the Armed Forces under Fidel, Raúl ran the armed forces autonomously and used his powerful position to push economic reforms in the 1990s. But Raúl and his followers often clashed with Fidel's cohorts. After 50 years of Fidelista rule, it would seem that the Raúlistas are now having their day.

So, what would a Raúlista government look like? Raúl and his supporters are economic reformers with a somewhat more global view of Cuba’s policies, as seen by his hands-on management under Fidel of Cuba's relationship with Russia, China, and many African countries. He is also credited with restraining his brother when the U.S. began shipping terrorist suspects to Guantanamo Bay. Though Raúl is known for more political orthodoxy in domestic affairs, and has long been seen as Fidel’s ideological enforcer, he implemented some significant economic reforms in the '90s, such as allowing agricultural workers to privately sell their goods, permitting the U.S. dollar to circulate, opening the country to tourism and foreign investment, and implementing policies that benefited small, privately owned businesses. He has also given some indication that he supports a Chinese model of state sponsored communism--perhaps following the path of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s current economic system, who surrounded himself with loyalists to help him push through economic reforms.

Surrounding himself by devoted acolytes--hard-line as they may seem--will allow Raúl to implement his relatively progressive vision without the interference of political squabbles. José Ramón Machado Ventura, the new second in command, is a good example. “He is an old-line communist,” says Frank Mora, a Cuba specialist at the National War College, “but most importantly he is a Raúlista. If Raúl said tomorrow, ‘We’re capitalists,’ he would be a capitalist.” This kind of loyalty would give Raúl the needed support to implement more of the economic reforms he pushed for in the '90s. “Whatever political consequences may come from economic reforms, the old guard is prepared to deal with it,” says Mora.

But hope for Cuba's future does not lie only in Raúl's aging coterie: Raúl himself has promised “structural changes” to the government that would open the political landscape to a new generation of leaders. These could include expanded powers for existing positions and the reinstatement of the position of prime minister, which Fidel held for the first 18 years of his rule before abolishing the post. “This is going to be a hand-off period from the generation that fought the revolution to the generation that grew up in the revolution,” predicts Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute.

Raúl, who was in charge of the Young Communist Union for many years, has fostered many of Cuba's up-and-coming leaders, and thus has many progressive Raúlistas to choose from. His appointment as president is good news for politicians from the next generation, such as Carlos Lage, 56, the “economic czar" of the 1990s who shares Raúl’s economic pragmatism and guided the island towards a number of financial reforms, including increased foreign investment. “Lage is likable, cautious and non-threatening, and can serve as a bridge between power factions,” Mora says. Also an expert on U.S. politics, Lage has been an advisor to Fidel on U.S. relations with Cuba and is likely to represent Cuba in any future negotiations with the U.S. While a strong supporter of the current Cuban political system, Lage’s pragmatism, diplomatic credentials, and progressive economic policies would probably make him a much more agreeable representative for the United States.

Raúl’s daughter, Mariela Castro, 44, is also considered a valuable connection with Cuban youth. As the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, she has encouraged domestic social reforms such as an end to official discrimination against homosexuals. Despite their differences, Raúl is said to listen to her and she could ascend the country's leadership ranks in the near future.

Another politician to keep an eye on is Fernando Remirez de Estenoz, 56, the current head of international relations for Cuba’s Communist Party. Fluent in English and a valued interlocutor with the U.S. (he previously served as the de facto Cuban ambassador), Remirez has been suggested as a future foreign minister. Trusted by Communist Party stalwarts and familiar with U.S. diplomatic circles, Remirez could be a key figure in helping transform Cuba's relationship with the U.S.

Before getting carried away with talk of potentially transformative figures, it is worth remembering that Raúl is no liberal democrat, and Fidel will continue to wield significant power as long as he is alive. But Fidel's influence will wane even as Raul continues to consolidate power. Raúl has even hinted that he (or a significant representative) may be willing to meet with U.S. officials. His ascension eliminates the major symbol of U.S.-Cuba enmity and gives the next U.S. president increased room for negotiation--especially if Raúl enacts economic reforms and elevates the young Raúlistas to leadership positions. While Raúl and his vice presidents may not be exactly what the U.S. was looking for after Fidel, his ascension bodes well for the future of relations between the two countries--and for broader reform on the island.

Cara Parks is a web intern for The New Republic.

By Cara Parks