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
0

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.


China says interning Muslims brings them into ‘modern’ world

In this Nov. 4, 2017 file photo, Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (AP)
Updated 38 min 18 sec ago
0

China says interning Muslims brings them into ‘modern’ world

  • Despite growing alarm from the US and the United Nations, China has maintained that Xinjiang’s vast dragnet of police surveillance is necessary for countering latent extremism and preserving stability

BEIJING: China on Tuesday characterized its mass internment of Muslims as a push to bring into the “modern, civilized” world a destitute people who are easily led astray — a depiction that analysts said bore troubling colonial overtones.
The report is the ruling Communist Party’s latest effort to defend its extrajudicial detention of Central Asian Muslim minorities against mounting criticism.
China’s resistance to Western pressure over the camps highlights its growing confidence under President Xi Jinping, who has offered Beijing’s authoritarian system as a model for other countries.
About 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities have been arbitrarily detained in mass internment camps in China’s far west Xinjiang region, according to estimates by a UN panel. Former detainees say they were forced to disavow their Islamic beliefs in the camps, while children of detainees are being placed in dozens of orphanages across the region.
The report by the official Xinhua News Agency indicated that key to the party’s vision in Xinjiang is the assimilation of the indigenous Central Asian ethnic minorities into Han Chinese society — and in turn, a “modern” lifestyle.
Xinjiang Gov. Shohrat Zakir said the authorities were providing people with lessons on Mandarin, Chinese history and laws. Such training would steer them away from extremism and onto the path toward a “modern life” in which they would feel “confident about the future,” he said.
“It’s become a general trend for them to expect and pursue a modern, civilized life,” Zakir said, referring to the trainees. He said the measures are part of a broader policy to build a “foundation for completely solving the deeply-rooted problems” in the region.
China has long viewed the country’s ethnic minorities as backward, said James Leibold an expert on Chinese ethnic polices at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.
Leibold described Beijing’s perspective on minorities as: “They’re superstitious, they’re deviant, they’re potentially dangerous. The role of the party-state is to bring them into the light of civilization, to transform them.”
Despite growing alarm from the US and the United Nations, China has maintained that Xinjiang’s vast dragnet of police surveillance is necessary for countering latent extremism and preserving stability. The Turkic-speaking Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) have long resented restrictions placed on their religious practices. They say they experience widespread discrimination in jobs and access to passports.
In the Xinhua report, Zakir said authorities provide free vocational training in skills geared toward manufacturing, food and service industries. Zakir said “trainees” are paid a basic income during the training, in which free food and accommodations are provided.
The report appeared aimed at disputing accounts provided by former detainees, who have said they were held in political indoctrination camps where they were forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the party.
Ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs have told The Associated Press that ostensibly innocuous acts such as praying regularly, viewing a foreign website or taking phone calls from relatives abroad could land one in a camp.
Zakir said the training centers were for people “who are influenced by terrorism and extremism, and those suspected of minor criminal offenses” who could be exempted from criminal punishment.
Zakir did not say whether such individuals were ever formally charged with any crime or provided a chance to defend themselves against the allegations. The report also did not say if attendance was mandatory, though former detainees have said they were forcibly held in centers policed by armed guards.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the system deprived detainees of basic legal protections such as access to lawyers.
The authorities’ attempts to justify the camps “illustrate what the ‘rule of law’ in China means — that the party bends it to its will and uses it as a weapon against perceived political enemies,” Wang said in an email.
Zakir did not say how many people were in such courses, but said some would be able to complete their courses this year.
Zakir seemed to try to counter reports of poor living conditions within the camps, saying that “trainees” were immersed in athletic and cultural activities. The centers’ cafeterias provide “nutritious, free diets,” and dormitories are fully equipped with TVs, air conditioning and showers, he said.
Omir Bekali, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh citizen, said he was kept in a cell with 40 people inside a heavily guarded facility.
Bekali said he was kept in a locked room with eight other internees. They shared beds and a wretched toilet. Baths were rare.
Before meals, they were told to chant “Thank the party! Thank the motherland!” During daily mandatory classes, they were told that their people were backward before being “liberated” by the party in the 1950s.
The idea that one’s beliefs can be transformed through indoctrination dates back to the Mao Zedong era, when self-criticisms and public humiliation were routinely employed to stir up ideological fervor.
The program’s philosophies can be traced even further back to the late imperial era, when Xinjiang’s “natives” were seen as requiring education in the Confucian way, according to Michael Clarke, a Xinjiang expert at Australian National University.
Amnesty International called the Xinhua report an insult to detainees and the families of people who have gone missing in the crackdown.
“No amount of spin can hide the fact that the Chinese authorities are undertaking a campaign of systematic repression,” the human rights group said.