Pope Benedict XVI will find a different Castro in charge in Cuba than
last time a pope visited island
By KEVIN G. HALL AND FRANCO ORDONEZ
HAVANA -- When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba on Monday, he'll find a
very different island from the one his predecessor, John Paul II,
visited in 1998. A Castro is still in charge, but it's Raul calling the
shots now, and Cuba increasingly reflects his vision.
Cuba remains an autocratic nation with limited freedom of expression and
stands alone as a dictatorship in a hemisphere swept by democracy in
recent years. But Raul Castro, who took power when his elder brother
Fidel stepped aside in 2006 because of failing health, has moved to pave
the way for a Cuba without its octogenarian leaders.
Quietly, and in some cases not so quietly, Raul, who ran the Cuban armed
forces and turns 81 on June 3, has showed the door to most in Fidel's
close cadre, replacing them with his own military allies. In a 2009
Cabinet reshuffle, he pushed out almost all of Fidel's remaining
appointments and consolidated his grip on power. He's stacked organs of
governance with military men and now is moving to reform the economy.
When Fidel outlived what his critics hoped was a life-ending illness,
the perception within and outside of Cuba was that Fidel would return to
calling the shots. That has proved wrong, specialists say.
"A lot of the hardliners were convinced that Fidel was still going to be
controlling things from behind. Now I think there is no doubt Raul has
established himself and is in charge," said a senior Obama
administration official involved in Cuba policy who demanded anonymity
in order to speak freely.
The changes Raul seeks range from scrapping or scaling back subsidies to
state-owned companies to starting the downsizing of the Cuban government
by what is expected to be at least half a million jobs. Most recently,
the Cuban government has announced a liberalization program that, if
carried out - and that remains a big "if" for now - would allow
self-employment, private farming and perhaps the most shocking reversal
of the Cuban revolution, the buying and selling of real estate.
Amado, a 30-something Cuban who sports a lapel pin with a Cuban and an
American flag, gave Raul credit for recognizing that the country is
changing and moving to allow greater economic openings. He pointed and
counted seven small family-run shops and restaurants on the main road
leading from the international airport.
"It's like when you are a kid that's eaten his parents cooking, and now
you want to go out and provide for yourself," he said.
Unlike Fidel, Raul maintains a low profile. Where Fidel is a synonym for
long-winded speeches, Raul eschews them, often letting his vice
president address the nation. Where Fidel enjoyed meeting journalists
late at night to discuss world affairs, Raul is reclusive. Actor Sean
Penn, an unusual choice of journalist, in 2008 was granted what was
called Raul's first interview by a foreign journalist since the start of
the Cuban revolution in 1957.
Penn described Raul as "warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit." In that
rare interview, Raul let loose that Cuba has been in permanent contact
with the U.S. military since 1994. It suggested that he is a known
quantity to the U.S. Defense Department.
After ruling over a period that spans 11 U.S. presidents, the personal
foibles of each Castro brother are well known.
But a tolerance bordering on an embrace of business is what most marks
Raul's rule as distinct from his brother's. Fidel allowed some
small-scale self-employment during the mid-1990s, a time that Cubans
call the "special period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which
had been Cuba's primary mentor and support. But the opening was at odds
with a revolution that abolished small businesses and self-employment in
1968, and the timid openings were largely rolled back after oil-rich
Venezuela stepped in under President Hugo Chavez to become Cuba's
life-support system beginning in 1999.
"Fidel hated the private sector, didn't trust it, didn't like it," said
William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist and dean of the American
University School of Public Affairs in Washington. "Raul Castro is much
more pragmatic in that regard."
Raul embraced capitalist management principals during the late 1980s,
pushing the Cuban military into self-reliance in food production and the
manufacture of parts needed for military machinery. His late wife, Vilma
Espin, who died in 2007, studied chemical engineering at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s. One of his daughters
married the chief of the economic division of the Cuban armed forces.
Raul's rule has surprised, in part because his public image had been
that of a stalwart ideologue, the more rigid of the two brothers.
"The funny thing to me, when I was there we considered him the
hardliner, head of the military, head of the interior ministry, he
always did Fidel's bidding," said Vicki Huddleston, a retired U.S.
ambassador who headed the U.S. interests section in Havana from 1999 to
Pointing to Raul's role as the chief contact with the Soviet Union for
much of Cuba's contemporary history, Huddleston and colleagues thought
Fidel was more tolerant of human rights activists than Raul. That was
partly because the older Castro feared a crackdown would damage his
image with European and Latin American intellectuals, and Raul was on a
"He had the reputation in the past of being the true communist," she
said. "I was always very, very skeptical that Raul was going to be the
nice guy, to open and change Cuba. First of all, I don't think he has
enough imagination to do it."
Huddleston remains skeptical that the Castro brothers can afford to go
too far with reform. "They can't really survive if they do major
changes, so they have to do it incrementally, but you know one thing
leads to another," she said.
Yet today it is Raul pushing Cuba toward an economic opening, that if
not U.S.-style capitalism at least more closely resembles other Latin
American economies, which have varying degrees of state involvement in
"The changes are already making a difference," said Philip J. Peters, a
Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a center-right security think
tank based in suburban Washington. "It's not complete by any stretch.
He's proceeding deliberately and in the eyes of many Cubans, far too
slowly, but already there has been more than a doubling in the number of
Helping drive Cuba toward a Vietnam- or Burma-like economic opening is
the unexpected but real possibility that Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez,
whose economic generosity has kept Cuba afloat since 1999, could exit
the scene through electoral defeat or death.
Chavez has been operated on twice recently for an unspecified cancer,
and in photographs he clearly looks like a man not well. Venezuela is
rife with rumor that he might not even survive until that nation's
October elections. The possibility of life without Chavez's oil money
gives greater urgency to Raul's reforms.
Obama administration officials believe that'd be a game changer.
As it stands, if Raul follows through on the promises made during
April's Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba and brings real
reform, it could be the break with the past that brings Cuba back into
modernity. It could also alter a 50-year-long, near-complete trade
embargo with Cuba first imposed by the United States in 1960 and
expanded in 1962.
"Once they go down that path, it's very difficult to roll that back,"
the senior Obama administration official said of Cuba's reform,
cautioning that while it looks promising it remains uneven and in its