In Cuba, Raúl Castro Proves a Pragmatic Communist
Fidel Castro’s younger brother, long the diligent operations man, taps
his sharpened negotiating skills to usher in era of change
By KEJAL VYAS in Bogotá, Colombia, and SARA SCHAEFER MUÑOZ in Havana
Updated March 20, 2016 4:20 p.m. ET
When he succeeded his ailing big brother Fidel in 2008, Cuban President
Raúl Castro pledged continuity for the island’s half-century-old
Harsh restrictions on political rights remain, but Raúl, who is 84 years
old, kept only part of his promise. He has turned out to be more
pragmatic: permitting citizens to run more businesses and go on the
Internet; hosting peace talks between Colombia and Marxist rebels;
engaging old adversaries like the Vatican; and winning vocal support
from U.S. allies across Latin America.
Those changes and his biggest accomplishment—detente with the U.S.,
symbolized by President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the first
by an American leader in 88 years—wouldn’t have been possible had Fidel,
who will turn 90 this year, remained in power, say Cuban exiles and
analysts who know the Castro family.
While Fidel’s bombastic personality and personal animosity toward the
U.S. garnered world-wide attention for decades, it came at the expense
of Cuba’s economy. His longtime deputy, however, the quiet and
less-charismatic Raúl, is using once-little-known negotiating skills to
bring Cuba closer to the U.S. and, in the process, chip away at the
Communist project he helped design.
Raúl recognized that economic overhauls, contingent on a new
relationship with Washington, were needed to meet the aspirations of
Cubans and maintain social peace, those who have studied his career say.
“This is a man, Raúl, who’s profoundly experienced in give and take in
negotiations because for 49 years or so, he was constantly doing that
with his brother,” said Brian Latell, who tracked Cuba’s leaders for
more than 30 years as a senior analyst for the Central Intelligence
Agency. Raúl, he said, “was misunderstood and underestimated, including
by my old employer.”
Considered an ironclad hard-liner in his decades as defense minister,
Raúl has put Cuba on a new path toward a mixed economy with his
experiments with subtle liberalization.
The country has gone from a total state-led model to having as much as
40% of the island’s 11 million people earning money through the private
sector, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, a think
tank. Rapprochement with the U.S. is also poised to greatly expand tourism.
“You can see the changes under Raúl,” said cabby Manuel Delgado, as he
gestured toward tourists and glittering foreign-run hotels, which under
Fidel were off-limits to Cubans. “It’s no secret. You can see the
difference between the two.”
When the revolution divided the Castro clan, it was Raúl, not Fidel, who
was the approachable one, say estranged family members like sister
Juanita Castro. In a 2009 book, “Fidel and Raúl, My Brothers: The Secret
History,” she described Raúl as a family man and favorite son who cried
at his mother’s deathbed. Fidel, on the other hand was indifferent to
his mother’s passing, refusing to send a plane so another sister could
attend the funeral.
“I don’t make bourgeois concessions for anyone,” Ms. Castro recalls
Fidel saying, “because this is a period of grand austerity for the
Fidel was known for mood swings and micromanaging, limiting his
organizational capacity, said Harvard University historian Jonathan
Hansen, who is writing a book on Fidel’s youth. During the guerrilla war
in the 1950s, Fidel personally counted soldier uniforms and bullets that
were to be dispatched to his ragtag forces. “He thought the revolution
was too important to leave in anyone else’s hands. And that was his
cardinal fault,” said Mr. Hansen.
Rapprochement with the U.S. was also off the table for Fidel, who needed
his arch-nemesis as a scapegoat for much of what went wrong on the
island, said Alfredo Duran, a Bay of Pigs veteran who has known the
Castros since his youth in Cuba. Indeed, outreach with Fidel by U.S.
presidents in the 1970s and 1990s failed.
Fidel found Cuba to be too small for his overwhelming ambition and
relished strutting across the world stage, historians and those who know
him say. Backed by the Soviet Union, he brought the world to the brink
of nuclear war during the October 1962 missile crisis and supported
revolutionary movements that reverberated throughout Latin America and
deployed Cuban troops to fight in Africa.
“Fidel was the dreamer,” said Mr. Duran. “Raúl was the bureaucrat who
kept the revolution going day-to-day. He knows how to delegate and keep
an organization afloat.”
For Raúl, keeping control has meant paring back on his brother’s
grandiose ambitions and grappling with the mundane. He slashed the
bloated public sector that used to promise cradle-to-grave state
services.He used the Vatican as an intermediary with the U.S.,
unimaginable in Fidel’s atheist government (Raúl also said he’d consider
going back to church).
While his brother inspired insurgencies the world over, Raúl has
publicly spoken of the importance of bringing an end to Latin America’s
only guerrilla conflict, in Colombia. Those kinds of gestures helped
Cuba get conservative, market-friendly governments in the region to
vigorously lobby the U.S. to end its economic embargo.
Under Raúl’s watch, army officers began holding monthly meetings in the
mid-1990s at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, with their
American counterparts. Raúl also sent his military officers to European
business schools for administration courses. And he has traveled to
China a number of times to study Beijing’s capitalist economic policies.
Those watching the changes here say Cuba could still follow in the steps
of Russia—transitioning from a totalitarian state to an oligarchy. The
regime frequently rounds up dissidents, a reminder of Raúl’s role as
As part of its dealings with the Cuban regime, the Obama administration
has focused almost exclusively on economic diplomacy. But American
diplomats say that economic changes could be a vehicle to bigger
openings. Washington this past week eased regulations on Cuba’s ability
to use U.S. financial institutions and effectively lifted its ban on
American tourists heading to Cuba.
“My goal is to remove barriers and create opportunities for the Cuban
and American people—they are the best hope for real change,” said Sen.
Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), whose meetings with Raúl helped lead to the
The White House says Mr. Obama’s two-day visit won’t include a meeting
with Fidel. The elder Castro is rarely seen in public but occasionally
writes short essays that run in state newspaper Granma, giving insight
into his thoughts about the changes sweeping Cuba.
Those thoughts may be more for the historical record now, rather than
indications of future policy, said Mr. Duran.
“The bottom line is: the generation of Fidel and Raúl, which
unfortunately is also my generation, is all dying off,” he said.
—Juan Forero in Bogotá, Colombia,
contributed to this article.
Write to Kejal Vyas at email@example.com
Source: In Cuba, Raúl Castro Proves a Pragmatic Communist – WSJ –