* Economist worked his way up government ladder
* Murillo has clear support of President Raul Castro
By Esteban Israel
HAVANA, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Cuban Economy Minister Marino Murillo has emerged as the point man for the Caribbean island's economic reforms after President Raul Castro let him make the public case for modernizing one of the world's last Soviet-style socialist systems.
The 49-year-old economist and Communist Party loyalist had previously stayed mostly in the background.
But in an unusual National Assembly meeting in Havana last week, he held forth for three days in nationally televised sessions, explaining the planned reform drive in blunt terms that impressed many viewers.
"The guy is in the spotlight and carries himself with confidence, which means Raul has given him a green light," said bank employee Dario Rodriguez, 39.
In long, detailed answers to the assembly, Murillo tossed out information about how the Cuban economy was performing, complained mightily about the things that were holding it back and explained why reforms were needed.
"We have to have a lot of discipline because if not, we cannot put this economy in order. These are moments of a lot of indiscipline," Murillo said.
"What we are doing here is designing," he added.
Discussing a new tax system to accompany the reforms, he gave an exhaustive explanation and said: "This seems complicated but is not. He who has to pay will learn it immediately."
The economist appointed to Castro's cabinet in a major shakeup last year is the architect of Cuba's boldest reform in decades, which includes slashing one million state jobs and expanding the communist-ruled island's private sector.
He helped draft 300 economic guidelines unveiled by Castro last month, which are being debated and are expected to be approved at a congress of the ruling Communist Party in April.
Murillo clearly has the support of President Castro, who refers to him as "comrade general." But although he graduated from the National Defense College, he is not known to have been in the military. Castro did however elevate him to a vice president post in the Council of Ministers.
In his assembly interventions, the loquacious Murillo said Cuba's state-dominated economy spends too much and produces too little. His straightforward assessment won a show of support from Castro in front of the assembly.
"I am going to applaud him," Castro told the gathering, which joined him in clapping.
Even though he has been in high-ranking positions for some years, Murillo's background is not well known and little public information is available about him.
Official websites describe him as an economist who has "been linked to the economic sphere for more than 20 years." He was previously Internal Trade Minister, Deputy Economy Minister and an auditor for the Food Industry Ministry.
Cuba expert Arturo Lopez-Levy at the University of Denver said Murillo worked his way up through the ranks of the government, understands well how it functions and is in synch with the prevailing opinions inside it.
"His advantage is a real knowledge of the system from inside and that he is part of a group of cadres with experience and a very integrated way of thinking," Lopez-Levy said.
Those ties to the party consensus serve him well now, Lopez-Levy said, but could become "a handicap when the time comes for the introduction of different policies and ideas at a second stage of reforms."
Murillo's dominant role at the National Assembly contrasted sharply with his generally low-profile predecessors, but was no surprise to a foreign businessman in Havana who dealt with him at the Internal Trade Ministry.
His style, said the businessman who asked not to be named, was to be "burly, impetuous and outspoken."
When Raul Castro finally took center stage on Saturday at the assembly meeting, he portrayed the ongoing reforms as a life or death matter for the future of Cuban socialism.
Cuban leaders had to overcome ideological taboos and accept private business as an important part of the future, he said.
Murillo agreed, but vowed the reforms would not devolve into an economy of "chinchales," or very small, badly-run businesses. "This is an economy where the efficient socialist enterprise will prevail," he said. (Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Jeff Franks and Jackie Frank)