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.


Vladimir Putin gets lavish welcome on visit to ally Serbia

Updated 30 min 32 sec ago
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Vladimir Putin gets lavish welcome on visit to ally Serbia

  • Church bells tolled, guns saluted and people waved Russian and Serbian flags on Putin’s route through the Serbian capital, Belgrade
  • Serbia has maintained close links with traditional Slavic ally Russia despite formally seeking European Union membership

BELGRADE, Serbia: Vladimir Putin received a hero’s welcome in ally Serbia on Thursday as the Russian president attempted to maintain political and economic influence in the Balkans, which is increasingly looking Westward.
Putin’s presidential plane was escorted over Serbian airspace by MiG-29 fighter jets he recently donated to Serbia as he arrived for the one-day visit. Church bells tolled, guns saluted and people waved Russian and Serbian flags on Putin’s route through the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
Serbia has maintained close links with traditional Slavic ally Russia despite formally seeking European Union membership. It has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and has pledged to stay out of NATO.
Putin has recently stepped up efforts to restore Moscow’s influence in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.
Putin and his host, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, praised the relationship between the two countries. Putin handed a top Russian honor to Vucic, who gave a puppy of a Serb dog breed to the Russian president.
Vucic thanked Russia for its support for Serbia’s claim over Kosovo, a former province that declared independence in 2008, and added that “however small,” Serbia has been a “reliable partner” to Russia.
Several bilateral agreements were signed, including on the supply of Russian gas and weapons to Serbia.
On the gas, Putin said Russian companies are ready to invest about $1.4 billion into a stretch of a pipeline that would go from Turkey via EU-member Bulgaria to Serbia and then on to Hungary, “but in the end, everything will depend on other countries, including the European Union.”
Putin’s visit come as thousands have been holding weekly demonstrations against Vucic because of what they see as his autocratic rule.
Tens of thousands of Vucic’s right-wing party supporters were bused into the capital on Thursday to gather in front of the St. Sava Orthodox church, which the two presidents visited. They were chanting slogans including “Serbia-Russia, we don’t need the European Union!“
Vucic’s critics say the gathering was staged to suggest that the Serbian leader has many more supporters than opponents, who have been marching the same route since December to demand free elections and media.
Several liberal Serbian rights groups issued a statement on Thursday protesting “glorification of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.”
It said that Putin’s visit “indicates that the Serbian rulers are ready to sacrifice human rights and better living standards of citizens because of their servile attitude toward Putin’s regime.”
Russia’s interest in Serbia relates to its strategic position between East and West. Of Serbia’s eight neighbors, five are NATO members and two more are seeking membership; and four are in the EU and two more are working toward accession. Serbia remains Moscow’s only ally in the region.
Unlike NATO, Putin formally does not oppose Serbia’s EU path and analysts believe that this is because he wants a staunch ally — or perhaps a Trojan horse — within the 28-nation bloc.
Putin’s popularity in Serbia is mostly because the Kremlin is supporting Serbia in its rejection of Kosovo’s independence. In contrast, most Western countries have recognized Kosovo’s statehood.