February 21, 2008
Miami Herald- Alfonso Chardy and Frances Robles
A Cuba where its people can travel abroad and sell their cars and homes without government controls. A Cuba with more private farmers, more market forces and perhaps even a radically overhauled top leadership.
That's a Cuba far from its current version, marked by a soul-killing bureaucracy and a Communist command economy.
But that's the Cuba that some experts are predicting if Raúl Castro, as expected, is elected to replace Fidel Castro, his older brother and orthodox communist, as the island's president when the legislative National Assembly meets Sunday.
The man who commanded the firing-squad executions of hundreds in 1959, who controls the repressive Interior Ministry and who was nearly indicted in Miami on drug charges is now seen as the possible reformer who will lead Cuba into something of a China-styled market communism.
None of these changes are expected overnight -- and no one is predicting a turn to democracy -- but experts say Raúl Castro is likely to tackle some of the nation's many and profound ills in the coming months.
The average monthly salary stands at about $15, and food prices are high. Farm production is low because the government pays low prices. Government permits are needed but hard to get for everything from selling a car to leaving the country to opening a maximum 12-chair restaurant.
MUCH WORK AHEAD
So Castro faces a monumental task.
'He has to start improving economic performance and reducing the misery that the population suffers,' said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on Cuba. ``He has to improve the economy, especially for the youth, who are the most unhappy.'
While a wholesale reversal of command economy controls is not expected, 'I think he will allow [more] small private farms and market incentives in agriculture,' added Latell, now with the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.
Castro gradually may replace top government officials, perhaps appointing a new defense minister -- a post he has held for nearly five decades -- as well as other aides and younger generals, Latell added.
Similar assessments came from Francisco Aruca, a Miami Cuban-American radio commentator and travel agent who frequently travels to Cuba and defends accomplishments of the revolution but also criticizes its shortcomings.
NEW TRAVEL RULES?
Among restrictions Aruca said may be lifted are the exit permits required for travel abroad -- even when Cubans have obtained foreign visas -- and the permits required to sell cars and homes in Cuba.
Observers also expect a change in leadership style. While Fidel was bombastic and verbose and a disorganized manager, Raúl is the opposite -- subdued and to the point, at times shy of the public spotlight but always a masterful organizer.
And he steered Cuba successfully through the potentially risky interregnum after Fidel Castro ceded power to him following intestinal surgery in mid-2006. The ailing Castro has made no public appearances since then, turning up only in photos and videos issued by the government.
'Things are changing in Cuba, but in silence, out of view,' said Lissette Bustamante, a former Cuban government television reporter who covered Raúl Castro before fleeing abroad in the early 1990s and now lives in Miami.
After the triumph of the Castro revolution in 1959, Raúl used Soviet aid to build Cuba's armed forces into a powerful unit that fought well in Angola, Ethiopia and several other foreign wars. And when the end of Soviet subsidies dramatically weakened the military in the early 1990s, he turned it into an economic powerhouse, running tourist hotels, managing imports and exports that now control an estimated 60 percent of the economy.
One interesting take on Raúl Castro's personality came from Markus Wolf, the legendary spy chief of East Germany, in his 1997 autobiography, Man Without a Face.
'Unlike his more emotional colleagues, he took a cool, strategic view of Cuba's situation,' Wolf wrote. 'He was the only one there who turned up for appointments on time, a trait highly unusual for Cubans. His friends teased him for his punctuality and called him `The Prussian.' '
He also can be cold-hearted -- and murderous.
Within days of Fulgencio Batista's ouster from power in January of 1959, while Fidel enjoyed the adoration of crowds, troops under Raúl's command in eastern Oriente province summarily executed about 100 Batista followers.
Armando Lago, a Cuban exile economist who has made it his life's work to compile a list of every person killed in the name of the Castro revolution, says that as governor of Oriente province, Raúl was personally responsible for 550 executions in 1959 alone -- about 100 of them without a trial.
It was also Raúl who ordered the arrest of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, one of Cuba's most decorated and popular military officers -- apparently on orders from Fidel, who suspected him of disloyalty. Ochoa was executed in 1989 after he was convicted of drug smuggling in a nationally televised trial.
Raúl Castro himself also has been linked to drug smuggling. In 1993, The Miami Herald reported that federal prosecutors in Miami had prepared a draft indictment charging him and 14 other top Cuban officials in a conspiracy to smuggle Colombian cocaine through Cuba to the United States. The indictment was never submitted to a grand jury.
Raúl likes to party and enjoys telling and hearing jokes, is friendly to employees and aides and is far better than Fidel at taking care of family matters, Bustamante said. While Fidel missed their mother's funeral, Raúl was the one who consoled the rest of the relatives. He seldom forgets a birthday.
As an adult, Raúl acquired the reputation of being a heavy drinker who would go on binges when he had disagreements with Fidel. But a former top aide who defected in the early 1990s said he only knew Raúl to suffer from diverticulitis, the same disease believed to have sparked the health crisis that forced Fidel to surrender power in 2006.
Raúl was married since early 1959 to Vilma Espín, a former guerrilla, longtime head of the Federation of Cuban Women and often Cuba's acting first lady at Fidel's side in official functions. She died in June 2007.
They have four children -- Deborah, Mariela, Nilsa and Alejandro -- and several grandchildren. Mariela is a well-known gay rights activist who at times seemed to assume the role of family spokeswoman during Castro's convalescence.
Castro first anointed Raúl as his successor in 1959, but the choice was not widely known until a 1985 interview with Playboy magazine.
'Since the very first year, and particularly when we started realizing that the CIA had plans to shorten my life,' Fidel told Playboy, ``we suggested . . . Raúl Castro . . . would immediately assume leadership. In my opinion, the comrade chosen is the most capable, not exactly because he's my brother, but due to his experience and revolutionary merits.'
Immediately after Castro ceded power to him in 2006, Raúl began making some tentative changes: He replaced four Cabinet ministers; called for talks with Washington; settled government arrears with farmers; called for open debates on the country's problems; and pushed the government news media into some hard-nosed reporting.
But now the pressure is squarely upon his shoulders to make the kinds of economic changes that will keep the socialist revolution going -- or watch it fall apart.
'What kept Fidel in power was his charisma,' said Bernardo Benes, a Cuban exile who met Raúl in the early 1950s when both played on the University of Havana's soccer team. ``Definitely, Raúl does not have the charisma his brother had. He has a different personality.'