On July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro, gravely ill, underwent emergency surgery and nearly died. He has been recuperating ever since.
The day of the surgery, national radio and TV broadcast Fidel’s announcement that he was passing the government’s reins to his brother, Raúl, first vice president of the Council of State and Ministers and, since the beginning of the revolutionary government, minister of defense. In keeping with the current constitution, Raúl was named interim head of state and then confirmed two years later by the parliament as the fourth president of the 50-year-old revolutionary republic.
Who is Raúl?
Five years younger than Fidel, Raúl is not well-known abroad. As a result, he is always subject to reductive and prejudiced views from both detractors of and apologists for the Cuban revolution. Raúl shares the revolutionary experience with Fidel and has had a special personal and political relationship with his brother; he has always declared himself Fidel’s most loyal partisan. But to those who really know the two men, the difference in their characters is considerable.
Neither as tall nor as charismatic as his brother, Raúl lacks Fidel’s indisputable aura of Commander in Chief. He has been Minister of Defense since the first months of the revolutionary government, but is disinclined toward public appearances and speeches. Neither is he considered likely to engage in the kinds of long campaigns for and against different issues for which his brother was known.
His leadership in the Revolutionary Armed Forces for 47 years required of him a pragmatism uncommon among revolutionary potentates. For the past 20 years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces has been heavily engaged in business and trade. It is Cuba’s largest corporation and runs, among other things, the largest hotel and tourist chains in the country.
In spite of a reputation as iron-fisted and inclined toward drastic measures, Raúl made a seamless transition to a business mentality when Cuba most needed it. As a result, he is seen as someone who could respond with objectivity and urgency to the challenges ahead.
There’s an anecdote that illustrates the differences between the two brothers. When the 82 revolutionaries aboard the yacht Granma disembarked in Cuba on Dec. 2, 1956, Ernesto “Che” Guevara described the event as a shipwreck. Several of the survivors wandered for days through the foothills of the Sierra Maestra and eventually met up with Fidel and Raúl Castro, who had also been on the boat.
Fidel, with conviction, declared: “There’s no doubt now that we’ll win the war.” Years later, Raúl confessed that at the time he thought his brother was crazy. When Fidel reproached him for his lack of faith, the younger Castro replied: “I absolutely believed in victory, but not that we’d be the ones to achieve it.”
Unlike his brother, Raúl did not finish college. He was involved in student movements and, also, unlike Fidel, with the Young Communists at the University of Havana. The high positions that he and Guevara had in the rebel army during the struggle against Batista – long before the revolution had declared itself communist – were the pretext for many of the early accusations of communism, even though the Cuban Communist Party condemned armed rebellion and didn’t join the insurrection in a decisive fashion until its final stage.
From this period, Raúl gained a reputation for being “pro-Moscow” or “pro-Beijing.” This, combined with his pragmatism, prompted some to call him the Caribbean Deng Xiaoping and view him as a reformer – especially in economic matters, where the unproductive Cuban economy urgently needs help.
Many Cubans think Raúl will be able to make the necessary changes to the Cuban economy. They attribute the economy’s many difficulties to what is commonly known as the “double blockade” – the embargo by successive American administrations and central economic planning that is deficient and arbitrary.
Cubans have benefitted from 50 years of social security, healthcare, education, sports and culture, but they also have suffered from an economy that has been incapable of improving the quality of life.
The exhausting day-to-day struggle has caused an exodus of large numbers of young people, most with professional skills acquired thanks to the Revolution’s educational policies. Without the possibility of a better quality of life, they are lured by the Cuban Re-Adjustment Act, a U.S. law permitting all Cubans admission into the United States.
Better times ahead?
Today, many Cubans are pinning their hopes on Raúl, not just for continuity and preservation of the social achievements of the last 50 years but for reform of a crumbling economy. They hope he will release the country’s stymied productive forces, allowing for the development of a more dynamic and democratic civil society.
Certain changes made by Raúl at the very beginning of his governance indicate a willingness to look for ways to make the economy and the government more efficient. The handing over of large parcels of idle land to individual farmers, in a country desperate to recover agricultural traditions, was an important step. The government now includes more women and more young people, even after consolidating the Old Guard. There’s also talk of reducing the number of ministries.
In July 2007, Raúl gave a speech that inspired hope because of its frankness. In it, he said that changes won’t come as fast as they’re needed. But much of the optimism eroded due to the unbearably slow pace of change since then. For many people, the spirit of that speech and the hope it inspired has proven ephemeral.
I don’t believe Fidel has to die for Raúl to make his reforms. The continuity between them is self-evident, but so are their differences. In principle, if something doesn’t change and move, it won’t survive. For the majority of Cubans, the ideal would be to preserve the best of the past while transforming the present. Natural law means the revolution’s seminal generation will soon reach its end. That generation has an obligation to bequeath future Cubans a better society.
Norberto Codina is the editor-in-chief of La Gaceta de Cuba, Cuba’s most important cultural magazine. His books of poetry include A este tiempo llamarán antiguo, Lugares communes, Cuaderno de traves’a, and Convexa pesadumbre. E‑mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.