Cuba’s Raul Castro, the builder of Fidel’s dreams

Always a good soldier, Raul Castro, right, knew that his place was behind his older brother. (Getty Images)
Updated 19 April 2018
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Cuba’s Raul Castro, the builder of Fidel’s dreams

  • Raul played a key behind the scenes role in obtaining support from the Soviet Union following the revolution’s triumph in 1959.
  • Frugal by nature and less expressive than his brother, Raul Castro slowly began to introduce reforms that opened Cuba to foreign investment.

Havana: Raul Castro, who stepped down Thursday as Cuba’s president, lived most of his life in the shadow of his iconic brother Fidel. But after taking over in 2006 he steered the island on a path of radical reform as only he could do.
Now 86, his departure ends the Castro brothers’ six-decade grip on power.
Always a good soldier, Raul Castro knew that his place was behind his older brother. “Fidel is irreplaceable, unless we all replace him together,” he said upon temporarily stepping in when his brother fell ill 12 years ago.
A skilled negotiator, Raul played a key behind the scenes role in obtaining support from the Soviet Union following the revolution’s triumph in 1959.
But even before that he became famous for snatching a gun off a soldier to set free his comrades after a botched raid on Moncada barracks in 1953.
When his brother seized power some six years later, Raul Castro became the second-in-command.
For him, as the youngest of the family’s seven children, it had always been about his big brother Fidel.
When he was just four, Raul asked his mother if he could leave their small town to be with nine-year-old Fidel, who was at a school in the city of Santiago de Cuba. She refused.
“He cried, fought, and insisted that she let him go,” recalled Fidel Castro in “My Life: A Spoken Autobiography,” a series of interviews published in 2006.
“They had a political partnership,” said Cuban political scientist Arturo Lopez Levy. “Fidel didn’t have that sort of relationship with any of his siblings. Raul became his number two when other revolutionaries (who outranked him) died.”
After the revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Raul set about strengthening the two main pillars of the revolution: the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).
As defense minister Raul led Cuba’s military for 50 years, transforming the idealistic rebels into an efficient military force. The FAR, which at its height had 300,000 troops, went on to play a central role in Cuba’s economy.
“The relationship was one of a leader and his lieutenant,” said Lopez-Levy, co-author of “Raul Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-Up View of Change.”
“Raul Castro became the one who turned Fidel’s dreams into reality. He was the institutional architect of the revolution,” Lopez-Levy said.
Raul formally took over as president in 2008, inheriting a country that had endured years of a US blockade and an economic crisis following the disintegration of its patron, the Soviet Union.
Frugal by nature and less expressive than his brother, Raul Castro slowly began to introduce reforms that opened Cuba to foreign investment, allowed private businesses, authorized the buying and selling of property, and eased restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad.
In late 2014 he stunned the world by reestablishing ties with Washington after a break of more than 50 years.
In 2016 he welcomed US President Barack Obama, and helped the Colombian government and FARC rebels reach a landmark peace deal.
Later that year his brother Fidel died.
In 2017 Raul Castro ratified an economic plan “to change everything that needs to be changed” — a catchphrase coined by Fidel to define “revolution.”
With Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House and the renewal of tough rhetoric against Havana, Raul barricaded himself within the all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba where he will continue to hold a pivotal role, serving as guardian to his successor.
A family man and father-of-three, Raul was married for 48 years to Vilma Espin, his comrade in arms who died in 2007.
One of his children is lawmaker and gay rights activist Mariela Castro, while another is Col. Alejandro Castro, a major power player. He has nine grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Whether wearing military fatigues or a suit and traditional button-down guayabera shirt, Raul enjoys the absolute loyalty of the military and the former revolutionaries.
Nikolai Leonov, a friend and former head of the KGB’s Cuba department, says the outgoing president loves hiking and joking around.
But years earlier it was Raul Castro who gave the order to shoot Batista loyalists.
“I couldn’t appear to the enemy as a man with a charitable soul,” he told the Sol de Mexico daily in 1993.
And in 1989, he backed a ruling to put prominent Cuban general Arnaldo Ochoa and three others in front of a firing squad for drug trafficking.
In a shock move in 2009, he ousted two leading figures from the circle of power — Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque — on charges of “ambition” and questionable conduct.
Although he freed dozens of opposition figures under a deal mediated by the Catholic church, arbitrary arrests increased under his watch, along with the prosecution of dissidents for common crimes, opposition leaders say.
Ever looking ahead, he has already prepared the site where he will be buried — a stone alcove on a mountainside near the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba where his beloved wife was laid to rest.


Spain rescues over 500 migrants in Mediterranean

Updated 27 May 2018
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Spain rescues over 500 migrants in Mediterranean

  • Spain’s maritime rescue service says it has rescued 500 migrants attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea this weekend
  • Spanish boats rescued almost 300 migrants from nine boats and a further 250 migrants were rescued from eight boats a day later

BARCELONA: Spanish authorities rescued over 500 migrants this weekend from more than a dozen boats making the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

Following plane and helicopter searches, Spanish boats rescued almost 300 migrants from nine boats on Saturday, authorities said.

As of Sunday afternoon, a further 250 migrants were rescued from eight boats, three of which were in poor condition and later sank, they added.

The migrants were from various countries in North and sub-Saharan Africa.

The number of people crossing into Spain by sea from North Africa, either via the Strait of Gibraltar or the Sea of Alboran, has increased significantly in recent years while arrivals to Italy and Greece via Libya have dropped.

Around 19,000 people made the sea crossing in 2017, representing a 182 percent increase on the previous year.

Europe’s border agency Frontex said in January that it expected a further increase in irregular immigration to Spain this year, with flows boosted by the use of fast boats.

An Italian coast guard official said on Sunday more than 1,800 migrants attempting to cross from Libya to Italy were rescued over the past three days, following an improvement in the weather.