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Raul: He's the pragmatic Castro

Fidel's brother has been painted as ruthless. But now, he could be in a position to enact reform in Cuba.

Published August 13, 2006

[AP file photo]
Fidel Castro's daughter, who lives in Miami, says Fidel is the political brother and Raul is the practical one.
Audio: Experts discuss the situation in Cuba

MIAMI - When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba 47 years ago, one of the first things he did was anoint his chosen successor.

Should he be assassinated, his younger brother, Raul, would take over, he declared in a famous January 1959 speech. He described him menacingly as one of a group of revolutionaries "more radical than I."

For decades Raul remained in the shadows while Fidel, who turns 80 today, feasted on the spotlight. Raul was commonly dismissed as a ruthless executioner and alcoholic.

Only now, after Fidel ceded power to Raul two weeks ago due to major intestinal surgery, is a more nuanced picture emerging.

Analysts and former colleagues draw a different profile of a highly capable man, a pragmatist - a reformist even, with an eye for capitalist business practices and a concern for the well-being of his long-suffering countrymen.

"He's a manager," said Brian Latell, the CIA's longtime former Cuba analyst and author of After Fidel, a recent biography that examines the unusual relationship between the Castro brothers. "He makes sure the bulbs are screwed in and the lights go on. "

While the reality of how Raul, 75, might govern Cuba remains uncertain, people who have worked near him over the years say that if anyone can sustain "the Revolution," it is Raul.

"For Fidel he's a perfect second," said Alcibiades Hidalgo, 60, Raul's chief of staff from 1981 to '91 who defected in 2002. "Fidel would never have got where he is without Raul."

In fact, were it not for the colossal aura surrounding Fidel, Raul Castro's star might have shone brighter.

While Fidel is universally seen as the visionary, Raul was often there guiding him. Sometimes it was Raul, not Fidel, who led the way, steering his brother out of troubled water.

"Anyone familiar with the Revolution from the inside knows (Raul) has never been a second violin," said Domingo Amuchastegui, 66, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who left the island 12 years ago.

The two brothers could not be more different. While Fidel was studying law at Havana University in the early 1950s, making a name in student politics, Raul was happier back home on the family farm.

But when Fidel took up arms against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Raul was at his side.

It was Raul who introduced Fidel to an energetic, yet asthma-afflicted young Argentine revolutionary, "Che" Guevara.

In early 1958, after several hard months struggling to establish a rebel foothold in the Sierra Maestra, it was Raul who went off with 50 men to open a second front in the Sierra Cristal. "In less than a year ... (Raul) developed the largest guerrilla force, controlled the greatest expanse of territory with the largest civilian population, and he built extensive infrastructure - including airstrips - in his operating zone," according to Latell.

When the rag-tag rebel army marched into Havana on Dec. 31, 1958, the Castro brothers knew they were ill-prepared for a counterattack from the United States.

Raul went to work quickly building a new armed forces out of the 3,500-strong rebel army, according to Julio Garcia Oliveras, a fellow comandante who served in the rebel underground in Havana before joining the new Armed Forces Ministry.

"Fidel was the strategist, but Raul was the organization man," said Garcia Oliveras, 74, who lives in Havana.

He was allegedly ruthless too, ordering executions of counterrevolutionaries. By the time the attack came in 1961, Cuba was ready with a 100,000-strong army to defeat the invasion force at the Bay of Pigs.

Within a year, with aid flowing from the Soviet Union, Castro declared Cuba to be a communist state. Again, Raul was the one working behind the scenes building the Cuban Communist Party.

As armed forces minister, Raul avoided the limelight, happy to let Fidel receive the adulation. Hidalgo and Amuchastegui recall his intense work schedule and teamwork leadership style. "He listens and looks for opinions," said Amuchastegui. "His questions were sharp and penetrating."

When the Soviet bloc began to fall apart it seemed to spell doom for the Castro brothers. "To speak of the Soviet Union's collapse is to speak of the sun not rising," Fidel said in 1991.

But Raul, who had seen this coming since 1979, was ready, says Amuchastegui, who has written extensively on the military's economic reforms. In the early 1980s the armed forces sent engineers, managers and economists to take courses in universities and tour factories in Scandinavia, France and Canada. American economists were also invited to lecture in Havana.

The Cubans called it "perfeccionamiento empresarial" - business improvement. The key institution entrusted with this project was Raul's Armed Forces Ministry.

New accounting practices were introduced, state subsidies eliminated and managers given greater independence from the state ministries that had run them. Incentive pay was introduced for productive workers.

It wasn't a short-term survival plan. "It's a long-term strategy of change and transformation for the whole system," wrote Amuchastegui in a recent unpublished study. It sought "the most suitable middle ground" to blend the Revolution's emblematic "social tenets" with "superior capitalist organization."

Similar to the "China model," it hinged on loosening state economic controls without letting go politically.

Fidel wasn't having any of it, but Raul saw it as the only way forward. "Raul has always been inclined to reforms despite his hard exterior," said Hidalgo.

"Fidel is the political brother," said Fidel's daughter Alina Fernandez, who lives in Miami. "Raul is the practical one."

The reforms could only cushion the blow of lost funding.

Between 1987 and 1997 the armed forces budget was cut 60 percent and manpower dropped from 297,000 to barely 65,000, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Raul's foresight prevented a total collapse.

Fidel made it clear that despite its success, perfeccionamiento went against his ideological leanings.

"Economists frighten me," he said in 1993. "If they are going to propose something that technically may be good, but politically catastrophic, our mission and duty is to stop them."

Even so, with the Cuban economy in a tailspin, perfeccionamiento became official policy.

Suddenly every state institution was being overhauled, subsidies cut and thousands made redundant. Fidel opened the door to foreign investment. The U.S. dollar was made legal tender.

The military took over large areas of industry and agriculture, as well as tourism. The new industries provided the military with employment for its now jobless officer corps.

Raul was sensitive to the public's needs, too. He famously promoted a series of agricultural reforms, including a video in which he attacked the scarcity of products, under the motto: "Beans are more important than canons."

By 2001, more than 1,400 state enterprises had entered perfeccionamiento. One of the first to go through the process was the Goma Conrado Pina factory in Havana, producing tire and rubber products. In the first year, average production increased 83 percent, sales rose 60 percent and after-tax profits shot up 300 percent, according to a 2001 study by Philip Peters of the Washington-based Lexington Institute.

Peters, a former U.S. diplomat, found that many Cubans were still leery of perfeccionamiento, doubting the capacity of reformed enterprises to make a big difference to their salaries.

While it "does not add up to a decisive free-market reform," Peters argued that groundwork had been laid for deeper reforms in the future.

That has yet to happen.

In fact, perfeccionamiento ground to halt in 2004. Cuba had enjoyed several years of economic growth and Castro had found a new ally in the region, oil-rich Venezuela's socialist president Hugo Chavez.

A trade agreement between the countries provides Cuba with 90,000 barrels a day of refined Venezuelan petroleum products, worth an estimated $1.4-billion last year. With money flowing in from China and Iran as well, Fidel had no more use for perfeccionamiento.

But his brother persisted. In recent years he has made two trips to China - the last one in April 2005 - and met with the architect of China's economic policy, former Premier Zhu Rongji.

Critics say that perfeccionamiento has never really met its expectations. The military industries that have gone through perfeccionamiento "are clearly the best run and efficient in Cuba," said Frank Mora, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., and a leading expert on the Cuban military. "But they don't match up in any way with any industry you might see in the United States, or even China."

While these industries were making "an important contribution" to Cuba's economic performance, they were still hamstrung by the impediments of Cuba's political system.

The obstacle is Fidel, analysts agree.

"Everything is sort of on a holding pattern," said Mora. "They are not going to have any major policy decisions while he is alive."

With Fidel now confined to his sick bed, many ask whether Raul can save the Revolution again.

Opinions are divided. "There can be no Castrismo without Fidel," said Hidalgo. He doubts Cuba has the stomach for the Chinese economic model. "Raul and his group will try and do it, but it's a system that permits no change."

Amuchastegui isn't sure Fidel's presence, though huge, will be missed.

"I'll swap you all the charisma for efficiency," he said, arguing that once Raul is freed from Fidel's shadow the Chinese model may take off.

"No one is better positioned to lead the Cuban people," Latell says, and Washington "will find they can work with him."


[Last modified August 13, 2006, 06:55:33]

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