Man in the News: Raúl Castro

Financial Times:

There are two very different visions of the young Raúl Castro who fought alongside his older brother Fidel and Che Guevara against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista more than five decades ago.

Some recall a guerrilla leader whose zone of operations in the eastern Sierra was the best organised among the Castros’ July 26 rebel movement, and that the local population was also the best cared for. For others he was Mr Hyde to Fidel’s Dr Jekyll, ruthlessly ordering executions after Batista fled Havana on New Year’s Eve 1959 having bid farewell to his nation with the curious: “¡Salud! ¡Salud!” (Good health and good luck!)

Either way, the 79-year-old is now more likely to go down in history as the man who tried to save Cuban communism from itself – by turning to capitalism. This week the government announced it is to shed 500,000 workers, who will instead have to become self-employed or start co-operatives in just six months. As Raúl said: “We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world in which people can live without working.” The measures will eventually lead to 1m, or a fifth of the labour force, working in the private sector, and represents the biggest shake-up of the Cuban state since 1968, when all shops, from hamburger joints to street vendors, were nationalised.

Cubans had been expecting the measures with a mix of hope and fear ever since he took over from Fidel, who is now semi-retired after suffering a near-fatal intestinal disorder in 2006. But the germ of the idea came just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on a trip to China. There Raúl concluded that growth, growth and more growth would be his central strategy. His challenge now is to avoid political change while promoting economic transition. The risk is that by letting the genie out of the bottle, uncontrollable political forces could be unleashed as well.

Like his brother, he was born at the family farm in eastern Cuba. Their father, Angel, a Spanish immigrant, was a wealthy landowner; their mother, Lina Ruz González, was a scullery maid who became Angel’s second wife. Both attended prestigious Jesuit-run schools. Yet while the brothers share ideology and goals, their styles could not be more different. For years, Raúl literally lived in the shadow of his brother – he is eight inches shorter than Fidel’s six feet. To all outward appearances, he seemed content to be there.

Nonetheless, Raúl is a man of some accomplishment. Over five decades as defence minister, he built the army into a formidable force. It achieved the rare if not unique feat of winning three African campaigns in the second half of the 20th century, in Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique. At times ruthless – he was prominent in the campaign against General Orlando Ochoa, a popular soldier and possible rival, who was executed in 1989 after being accused of corruption – he is also a pragmatist, less wedded to dogma than Fidel.

While known to row in private, in public they present a common front. One exception came in 1994, when Raúl broke publicly over the need to liberalise agricultural markets after the fall of the Soviet bloc, arguing that Cuba’s biggest security threat was beans, not cannons. In a videotape to communist party members, he explained that without reform it would fall to him and the army to subdue protest and thus have to “play the role of the bad guy in the movies”. Raúl subsequently turned the army’s hand towards running tourist and other services, which now generate millions of dollars for the state.

It was only in July 2007, however, that he gave his first major public speech in which he echoed popular complaints of a decaying command economy where state wages, equivalent to $20 a month, cannot cover bare necessities. Since then he has repeatedly decried paternalism, called for more individual initiative and encouraged the public and official media to denounce bureaucratic bungling. When Fidel quipped the other day that the Cuban model no longer worked, he was merely uttering the common view fostered by his brother to prepare the way for change. Any hard-line dissenters in the elite – who might respect but do not revere Raúl as they do Fidel – fell in line.

Raúl is perhaps even more secretive than Fidel. As he once said, “I am not used to making frequent appearances in public, except at times when it is required … I have always been discreet, that is my way.” While Fidel has roamed the world, Raúl has spent just 24 hours in the US, and has barely set foot in other parts of the west.

He lives in a compound on 25th Avenue on the western outskirts of Havana. For two blocks, vegetation and green metal screening block the view, and plainclothes security agents hanging around on the pavement are easy to spot.

His favourite pastime is said to be playing dominoes over a bottle of rum with friends. Reportedly jovial in private, he reveals a wry wit in public, and is known as a more liberal father than his more authoritarian and austere brother. In 1959, he married Vilma Espín, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer for the mighty Bacardí family who went on to become a heroine of the revolution. They had four children and she became known as Cuba’s de facto first lady, as Fidel was divorced and guarded about his private life.

The family has followed him to his offices at the party and government headquarters on Revolution Square, the scene of military parades and mass rallies. His only son, Alejandro, an interior ministry official, is thought to play a role akin to national security advisor. His daughter Deborah’s husband, Luis Alberto Fernández, is a colonel who manages the military’s expanding business interests, and is reportedly Raúl’s top economic advisor. Deborah’s son, Raúl, is always at his grandfather’s side at public appearances, apparently serving as bodyguard and assistant.

Raúl Castro lacks Fidel’s vision and drive, but calls a spade a spade, and is known to care for his own. While Fidel demanded that officials drive Soviet Ladas without air conditioning, Cuba’s top brass today roam the roads in spanking new Chinese sedans, windows rolled up. And in socialist Cuba owning a new car, or any car at all, is akin to owning a yacht – or at least for now, should Raúl’s reforms succeed

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