Cuba: The International Spotlight is on Fidel Castro’s Successor

Cuban President Fidel Castro (L) and his younger brother Raul, Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, chat on Dec. 23, 2003 in Havana, Cuba during the last meeting of the Cuban Parliament. (Photo: Adalberto Roque / AFP-Getty Images)

The announcement on Monday, Aug. 1, that long-time Cuban President Fidel Castro was temporarily ceding presidential powers to his brother Raul caught both Cubans and observers around the world by surprise. It was the first time that Castro had ever surrendered power. The Cuban president was said to have undergone an operation to repair intestinal bleeding.

China's Shanghai Daily (Aug. 1) reported: "Fidel Castro's announcement that he was temporarily ceding presidential powers to his brother Raul ushered in a period of uncertainty in Cuba and celebrations by his enemies abroad, while fueling speculation on just how sick he is. The announcement that Castro had been operated on to repair a 'sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding' stunned Cubans, and marked the first time that Castro, two weeks away from 80th birthday, had relinquished power in 47 years of rule.

"Castro last appeared in public a week ago as he marked the 53rd anniversary of his July 26 barracks assault that launched the Cuban revolution. The leader seemed thinner than usual and somewhat weary that day during long speeches in the eastern cities of Bayamo and Holguin."

Reporting the latest news out of Cuba, Canada's London Free Press (Aug. 3) said: "State television gave no news about Fidel Castro's condition yesterday, rerunning a government statement that his health was stable after surgery, his spirits good and the defense of the island guaranteed. … Castro's brother and acting president, Raul Castro, remained out of sight, issuing no statements of his own."

With international conjecture regarding the Cuban leader's health running rampant, Qatar's Gulf Times (Aug. 3) noted: "Castro's absence from public view has fuelled speculation that he might be gravely ill, if not already dead. Raul Castro, 75, has also not appeared in public."

The temporary transfer of power has thrust Raul Castro into the international spotlight. It is not a role that he has become accustomed to, as the U.K.'s Guardian Unlimited (Aug. 1) reported: "The youngest of the five Castro siblings, Raul, 75, has been in his older brother's shadow for four decades. Educated at Jesuit college in Havana, he preceded his brother into the Communist youth movement during his student years and established early strong links with the Soviet Union. Along with his brother Fidel, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, he was a leading rebel commander during the guerrilla war to remove Batista. According to Richard Gott's recent history of Cuba, Raul won his hawkish reputation by presiding over the execution of 70 of Batista's soldiers during the revolution."

According to the U.K.'s BBC (Aug. 1): "Raul, now 75, has always lurked in his brother's shadow — a head shorter than Fidel, and without his brother's charisma or oratorical verve. As head of Cuba's armed forces, Raul has played a central role in Cuba's recent history, and yet opinion is divided over the role he might play as Cuban leader."

"Raul was officially designated Fidel's successor at a Communist Party congress in October 1997, when Fidel said: 'Raul is younger than I, more energetic than I. He can count on much more time.' Some say that he has always been more of a hard-liner than Fidel. In the first few months of the Revolution, he was kept out of the limelight because his militancy was thought unpalatable."

Of his formative years, the BBC article said: "Raul was born in 1931 in the eastern province of Holguin, to Angel Castro and Lina Ruz, the youngest of three brothers and five years younger than Fidel. He attended school first in Santiago and then in Havana, where as a university undergraduate he joined a communist youth group. In 1953, he took part with Fidel in the assault on the Moncada barracks — an attempt to oust the authoritarian regime of Fulgencio Batista. But the assault failed, and Raul served 22 months in jail alongside his brother. In 1955, the two were released, and went to Mexico to prepare the ship Granma for a revolutionary expedition to Cuba in late 1956."

Trinidad and Tobago's Trinidad News (Aug. 2) focused on his family life: "[Raul is] married to Vilma Espin, who fought alongside him. She eventually became, and remains, head of Communist Party-linked women's organization and often serves as Cuba's First Lady. Together they had four children and numerous grandchildren."

Also delving into Raul's past, the U.K.'s Times Online (Aug. 1) said: "Imprisoned with his brother for just under two years, Raúl emerged as a fully fledged guerrilla. In exile in Mexico, he met the young Argentine fighter, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and brought him into the Cuban revolutionary movement and helped find the weapons, supporters and supplies to fill the ship Granma that carried the Castros back to Cuba in Dec. 1956."

"With his collection of titles — he is Vice President of the Council of Ministers, First Vice President of the Council of State of Cuba, Vice-Secretary of the Politburo and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) as well Defense Minister — Raúl had long been regarded as Fidel's deputy and likely successor should the Cuban President die before him. As head of the Armed Forces, Raúl was integral to the development of close military ties with the USSR and was one of the key players in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, seeking the installation of Soviet nuclear warheads on Cuba."

"In recent months, a press campaign has been under way to elevate the status of Raúl, who rarely gives speeches and has never given an interview to a Western journalist. The day before his 75th birthday, Granma, now the name of the Communist Party newspaper, ran an eight-page supplement lionizing him as 'the chief, the leader, the companion, the man.'"

This campaign caught the notice of the international press. In the month before Fidel Castro's surgery was announced, an article in the Malaysia Sun (July 14) indicated that: "Raul Castro — the brother of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — is being groomed to become the next leader of Cuba. Recent media reports out of Cuba suggest the 75-year-old Raul Castro, who is also Cuba's Defense minister, is shouldering more duties and is being prepared to succeed the 79-year-old Fidel Castro in the coming years."

Preparations for a transfer of power had apparently been on tap for quite some time. According to Spain's EiTB (Aug. 1): "Three weeks after taking power in January 1959, Castro named Raul his successor, telling supporters: 'Behind me are others more radical than I.' He officially designated Raul as his successor at a Communist Party congress in October 1997. In 1962 he became deputy prime minister and in 1972 first deputy prime minister, behind Fidel."

"At 75 and five years younger than Fidel, Raul is far less charismatic than his brother though far more radical. As first vice president of the Council of State, Cuba's supreme governing body, Raul is legally designated to assume his brother's role as president of the council in the event of 'absence, illness or death.'"

Also reporting on the plans for succession, Canada's Globe and Mail (Aug. 2) published a quote from the new Cuban leader: "'Things are all arranged, very well arranged,' boasted Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, in a July, 2001, interview with Spanish journalists. … But while Cuba's leadership has publicly lined up behind the succession scenario, there is no guarantee of future solidarity."

"Political power inside Cuba is now largely held by allies of Raul (the so-called 'Men of Raul'), whom he has been quietly putting into key positions for the past several years. Many are in their 50s, but a restless generation of younger bureaucrats could challenge them as soon as the colorless Raul appears to falter."

Analysts are divided on what kind of leader Raul might make. According to a BBC (Aug. 1) report: "Raul indicated in June that a collective leadership would most likely govern Cuba following his brother's death, through the Communist Party, which is reportedly being strengthened in preparation for such a succession. Some suggest he would make a more radical leader. But others suggest he would help the country make the transition to a 'softer,' more market-friendly form of communism. Yet others suggest that at 75, Raul would have only a limited period in the job, and limited impact."

For Cubans the temporary change in leadership has created feelings of unease, as reported by the U.K.'s Financial Times (Aug. 1): "'This is a new situation and very difficult for everyone,' said Carlos Barnet, a retired man in Holguin province, where Mr. Castro was born. 'We've had many years with Fidel and now the time has come to demonstrate what we have learned from him.' Yolanda Gonzales, a housewife, said in the second city, Santiago de Cuba: 'The [government] statement makes me confident Fidel will recover. Now we have to do whatever is necessary to move out of this very difficult moment for the country.'"

In the U.S., exiled Cubans were far from mournful about the latest news. According to the Times Online (Aug. 1): "On the streets of Miami's Little Havana district, Cuban exiles partied as if Fidel Castro was already dead today. Outside the landmark Versailles Café, where President Bush had sat down to breakfast with Cuban-American leaders only a day earlier, migrants puffed on cigars and waved flags as passing motorists honked their horns in celebration. Some stood dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs, others shimmied along Calle Ocho — the Cuban district's main thoroughfare — banging saucepans and chanting 'Free Cuba' and 'Down with Castro' in Spanish. 'I'm waiting for the dog to die and to see him buried,' gloated Tony Alfonso, 69, who fled to Florida 34 years ago after serving a decade in a Cuban jail for attempting to overthrow Castro's government."

News of the temporary change in power was not warmly received in Washington, D.C. As reported by Russia's Moscow Times (Aug. 3): "The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush dismissed Raul Castro, suddenly the acting leader in Cuba, as no more than a 'prison-keeper' on Tuesday, as officials reviewed long-standing plans for the post-Fidel Castro era. 'The fact that you have an autocrat handing power off to his brother does not mark an end to autocracy,' White House spokesman Tony Snow said of the Castro brothers."