On April 19 of last year, Raúl Castro voluntarily abandoned the last of his political positions and surely the most important of all, that of First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). Nineteen months earlier, Fidel’s younger brother, who throughout his life escorted the Cuban leader to power and succeeded him when he fell ill in 2006, had ceded the country’s presidency to Miguel Díaz-Canel. It was Raúl who designed his replacement to the millimeter, established before leaving a maximum limit of two five-year terms for senior positions, and promoted Díaz-Canel as the person in charge of heading the ship of the revolution without a Castro in command for the first time in 60 years.
In the long 12 months that he has been away from the political front line, Raúl Castro, however, has never stopped being, and in no way can he be considered a retired former president despite the fact that he will turn 91 in June. The day after the massive protests of July 11, 2021, he attended the extraordinary meeting held by the Political Bureau of the PCC to analyze what happened, and five days later he participated, dressed in his Army General uniform, in an “act of reaffirmation” on the boardwalk surrounding Díaz-Canel and the main leaders of the Government.
In his last public appearance, days ago, in the parade for May 1, Raúl showed that he was still aware of the fundamentals and especially of the “work of the new generations that are leading the Party”, starting with President Miguel Díaz- Canel, his personal commitment to guarantee the continuity of the Cuban political system. “He is working very well and a lot, sometimes more than necessary,” he said.
After half a century managing the engine room of the revolution and ensuring its logistics, and 10 more years as head of the country and of the PCC after Fidel’s illness, for Raúl Castro the fact that Cuban socialism survives its historical leaders is perhaps his the last great mission and one of the greatest challenges.
His health is apparently good, the so-called Office of the General of the Army continues to be active and he remains informed of the most relevant meetings of the PCC and the Government and gives his opinion. And his opinions obviously carry weight, assure veterans who have worked alongside him, who point out that “no one would think of not consulting him on key decisions.”
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Certainly, what has happened in Cuba since 1959 cannot be understood without the figure of Raúl, perhaps the last great survivor of the Cold War and international politics of the second half of the 20th century. If Fidel was the founder, the charisma and the engine of the revolution, Raúl was the main guarantor and supporter of him from his position at the head of the Army and the day-to-day politics of the communist party. According to former CIA analyst Brian Latell, author of the well-known biography After Fidel: The Secret History of the Castro Regime and Who Will Succeed HimRaúl Castro was the only “truly indispensable leader of the regime”, without whom Fidel would not have been able to govern for decades, since he took care that the gear worked beyond the dreams and wishes of his brother.
Another intelligence analyst, Nikolai Leonov, of the Soviet intelligence services (KGB) and recently deceased, recalls in another book that Raúl assumed the weight of strategic relations with the former Soviet Union for 30 years, and that he was on the front line of fire at the most delicate moments, such as when in 1989 a trial for drug trafficking against General Arnaldo Ochoa and other high-ranking military officers shook the pillars of the State.
During the crisis of the Special Period, while the country was drowning and starving, it was the eternal minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (between 1959 and 2008) who personally assumed the task of convincing the party bureaucracy of the need to reopen the markets agricultural, governed by the law of supply and demand, a reform that the most orthodox viewed with suspicion and as a concession to capitalism. “Beans are as important as cannons,” Raúl Castro said in one of those meetings, thus closing the debate. And the phrase became famous.
Educated in the Jesuits like Fidel, fought alongside him in the revolutionary struggles at the University of Havana, Raúl was at all the milestones of the revolution: in the assault on the Moncada Barracks (1953), in the landing of the Granma yacht (1956 ), in the Sierra Maestra struggle (1956-1958), and also in the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) and the Missile Crisis (1962), in both cases as military chief of the eastern region of the country. After the disappearance of the socialist camp in the 1990s, Raúl opted to develop the private sector as a way of helping the country out of the crisis. He had previously successfully experimented with the so-called “business self-management system” in corporations and military industries, a formula that gave greater incentives to workers and more autonomy to the management of companies seeking greater economic efficiency.
“If Fidel in all circumstances has been the commander in chief, Raúl has always remained chief of his General Staff,” Leonov concluded when he profiled the youngest of the Castros, his friend since 1953, whom he highlighted as one of his main qualities his “pragmatism to govern”.
When it was his turn to do so, in 2008, after the resignation of his brother, Raúl continued with his policy of economic changes and undertook a singular offensive to put an end to what he called “absurd prohibitions” and “undue gratuities”. Thanks to this, Cubans were finally able to stay in the same hotels as foreign tourists, buy computers, have mobile phones, sell their houses and cars, and little by little the use of the Internet began to spread on the island, in addition to eliminating the humiliating ‘white card’, or exit permit, required for any Cuban when traveling. At the same time, the new president began to dismantle the entire scaffolding of subsidies, inflated workforces and economic aid to unprofitable companies that for decades underpinned Fidel’s dream of an egalitarian society.
Unlike his older brother, who during the crisis of the 1990s authorized self-employment but always considered it a “necessary evil” and suffocated it when he could, Raúl promoted it more boldly. In 2008, there were some 150,000 self-employed in Cuba; Today there are more than 600,000 self-employed workers, 13% of the active population, and there are around 3,000 small and medium-sized private companies in the country. According to prestigious Cuban economists, the transformations he promoted were important but insufficient and slow, following the Raulist motto of working “slowly but steadily.”
Aware that his brother’s charisma and his way of exercising power were inimitable, from the moment he arrived at the Palace of the Revolution, Raúl designated the Communist Party as “the only worthy heir to Fidel” and promoted a collegiate form of government, putting an end to personalism and reinforcing institutionality. At the beginning, Raúl Castro dedicated considerable time to “forging consensus” and for the Councils of State and Ministers to regain their lost prominence, since in Fidel’s time many important decisions were decided in the leader’s office with a small group of collaborators.
In his ten years at the head of the Government (2008-2018), nothing substantially changed politically: Cuba continued to be a single-party country, with a statist system and central planning, with no space for dissidence. The economic reforms did advance but with ups and downs, and on more than one occasion Raúl Castro himself cried out against the “old mentality” installed in the darkest part of the civil service, asking that they not continue putting sticks in the wheel of change and that “Unlock the productive forces.”
Either he couldn’t, or he didn’t want to, or he didn’t make it. But the truth is that Raúl left the path of economic openness open, although he also defined its limits before leaving the position of first secretary of the PCC, when he delivered his last speech at the VIII Congress of said organization, in April 2021. of significantly expanding the number of private work activities that Cubans could carry out and the law of SMEs was about to be approved, and from different tribunes the private exercise of professions such as architecture or law was demanded, and the end of the state monopoly on foreign trade.
Raúl Castro was blunt, saying that along this path in a short time “a privatization process that would sweep away the foundations and essences of the socialist society built over more than six decades” would begin, and he left the following message to his successors : “These are questions that cannot lend themselves to confusion and much less to naivety on the part of the leadership cadres and Party militants. There are limits that we cannot exceed because the consequences would be irreversible and would lead to strategic errors and the very destruction of socialism and therefore of national sovereignty and independence”. A whole roadmap that was a jug of cold water for the most reformist sectors of society.
A key moment of his presidency was the negotiation of the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States with Barak Obama, something that had not been possible with Fidel. In 2016 Raúl Castro received a visit from the former US president on the island, a trip of great symbolism, but Donald Trump immediately arrived at the White House and the rapprochement was blown up. Undoubtedly, settling the old dispute between the two countries would have been an important legacy for his successors. It could not be. Before leaving, it was his initiative to establish a maximum limit of two five-year terms for senior positions, which in the case of Díaz-Canel are fulfilled in 2029 (as president) and 2031 (as secretary of the PCC). By then, perhaps it will be known what happened to Raúl Castro’s last mission.
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