Many view Raúl Castro as a reformer
In a post-Fidel Castro world, brother Raúl may steer Cuba in a new but
cautious direction aimed at satisfying hopes for change.
Posted on Thu, Feb. 21, 2008
BY ALFONSO CHARDY AND FRANCES ROBLES
A Cuba where its people can travel abroad and sell their cars and homes
without government controls. A Cuba with more private farmers, more
market forces and perhaps even a radically overhauled top leadership.
That's a Cuba far from its current version, marked by a soul-killing
bureaucracy and a Communist command economy.
But that's the Cuba that some experts are predicting if Raúl Castro, as
expected, is elected to replace Fidel Castro, his older brother and
orthodox communist, as the island's president when the legislative
National Assembly meets Sunday.
The man who commanded the firing-squad executions of hundreds in 1959,
who controls the repressive Interior Ministry and who was nearly
indicted in Miami on drug charges is now seen as the possible reformer
who will lead Cuba into something of a China-styled market communism.
None of these changes are expected overnight — and no one is predicting
a turn to democracy — but experts say Raúl Castro is likely to tackle
some of the nation's many and profound ills in the coming months.
The average monthly salary stands at about $15, and food prices are
high. Farm production is low because the government pays low prices.
Government permits are needed but hard to get for everything from
selling a car to leaving the country to opening a maximum 12-chair
MUCH WORK AHEAD
So Castro faces a monumental task.
''He has to start improving economic performance and reducing the misery
that the population suffers,'' said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst
on Cuba. “He has to improve the economy, especially for the youth, who
are the most unhappy.''
While a wholesale reversal of command economy controls is not expected,
''I think he will allow [more] small private farms and market incentives
in agriculture,'' added Latell, now with the University of Miami's
Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.
Castro gradually may replace top government officials, perhaps
appointing a new defense minister — a post he has held for nearly five
decades — as well as other aides and younger generals, Latell added.
Similar assessments came from Francisco Aruca, a Miami Cuban-American
radio commentator and travel agent who frequently travels to Cuba and
defends accomplishments of the revolution but also criticizes its
NEW TRAVEL RULES?
Among restrictions Aruca said may be lifted are the exit permits
required for travel abroad — even when Cubans have obtained foreign
visas — and the permits required to sell cars and homes in Cuba.
Observers also expect a change in leadership style. While Fidel was
bombastic and verbose and a disorganized manager, Raúl is the opposite
— subdued and to the point, at times shy of the public spotlight but
always a masterful organizer.
And he steered Cuba successfully through the potentially risky
interregnum after Fidel Castro ceded power to him following intestinal
surgery in mid-2006. The ailing Castro has made no public appearances
since then, turning up only in photos and videos issued by the government.
''Things are changing in Cuba, but in silence, out of view,'' said
Lissette Bustamante, a former Cuban government television reporter who
covered Raúl Castro before fleeing abroad in the early 1990s and now
lives in Miami.
After the triumph of the Castro revolution in 1959, Raúl used Soviet aid
to build Cuba's armed forces into a powerful unit that fought well in
Angola, Ethiopia and several other foreign wars. And when the end of
Soviet subsidies dramatically weakened the military in the early 1990s,
he turned it into an economic powerhouse, running tourist hotels,
managing imports and exports that now control an estimated 60 percent of
One interesting take on Raúl Castro's personality came from Markus Wolf,
the legendary spy chief of East Germany, in his 1997 autobiography, Man
Without a Face.
''Unlike his more emotional colleagues, he took a cool, strategic view
of Cuba's situation,'' Wolf wrote. 'He was the only one there who turned
up for appointments on time, a trait highly unusual for Cubans. His
friends teased him for his punctuality and called him `The Prussian.' ''
He also can be cold-hearted — and murderous.
Within days of Fulgencio Batista's ouster from power in January of 1959,
while Fidel enjoyed the adoration of crowds, troops under Raúl's command
in eastern Oriente province summarily executed about 100 Batista followers.
Armando Lago, a Cuban exile economist who has made it his life's work to
compile a list of every person killed in the name of the Castro
revolution, says that as governor of Oriente province, Raúl was
personally responsible for 550 executions in 1959 alone — about 100 of
them without a trial.
It was also Raúl who ordered the arrest of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, one of
Cuba's most decorated and popular military officers — apparently on
orders from Fidel, who suspected him of disloyalty. Ochoa was executed
in 1989 after he was convicted of drug smuggling in a nationally
Raúl Castro himself also has been linked to drug smuggling. In 1993, The
Miami Herald reported that federal prosecutors in Miami had prepared a
draft indictment charging him and 14 other top Cuban officials in a
conspiracy to smuggle Colombian cocaine through Cuba to the United
States. The indictment was never submitted to a grand jury.
Raúl likes to party and enjoys telling and hearing jokes, is friendly to
employees and aides and is far better than Fidel at taking care of
family matters, Bustamante said. While Fidel missed their mother's
funeral, Raúl was the one who consoled the rest of the relatives. He
seldom forgets a birthday.
As an adult, Raúl acquired the reputation of being a heavy drinker who
would go on binges when he had disagreements with Fidel. But a former
top aide who defected in the early 1990s said he only knew Raúl to
suffer from diverticulitis, the same disease believed to have sparked
the health crisis that forced Fidel to surrender power in 2006.
Raúl was married since early 1959 to Vilma Espín, a former guerrilla,
longtime head of the Federation of Cuban Women and often Cuba's acting
first lady at Fidel's side in official functions. She died in June 2007.
They have four children — Deborah, Mariela, Nilsa and Alejandro — and
several grandchildren. Mariela is a well-known gay rights activist who
at times seemed to assume the role of family spokeswoman during Castro's
Castro first anointed Raúl as his successor in 1959, but the choice was
not widely known until a 1985 interview with Playboy magazine.
''Since the very first year, and particularly when we started realizing
that the CIA had plans to shorten my life,'' Fidel told Playboy, “we
suggested . . . Raúl Castro . . . would immediately assume leadership.
In my opinion, the comrade chosen is the most capable, not exactly
because he's my brother, but due to his experience and revolutionary
Immediately after Castro ceded power to him in 2006, Raúl began making
some tentative changes: He replaced four Cabinet ministers; called for
talks with Washington; settled government arrears with farmers; called
for open debates on the country's problems; and pushed the government
news media into some hard-nosed reporting.
But now the pressure is squarely upon his shoulders to make the kinds of
economic changes that will keep the socialist revolution going — or
watch it fall apart.
''What kept Fidel in power was his charisma,'' said Bernardo Benes, a
Cuban exile who met Raúl in the early 1950s when both played on the
University of Havana's soccer team. “Definitely, Raúl does not have the
charisma his brother had. He has a different personality.''