By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
MEXICO CITY, Feb. 19 -- Raúl Castro has long operated in the backstage of Cuban politics. But his public record, which has emerged over his 19 months as interim president, suggests he might pursue reforms to allow more political and economic latitude on the island.
Rough-edged and uneasy in the spotlight, Castro, 76, appears to have been laying the groundwork for a larger reconfiguration of Cuba's economy since he took over from his ailing older brother, Fidel, in July 2006.
He has publicly mocked Cuban farmers for failing to cultivate rich farmland, held public forums for citizens to criticize the government and set in motion reforms to streamline the country's famously inefficient bureaucracies, especially those involved in distributing food to Cubans who face constant shortages.
If picked by Cuba's newly elected National Assembly in a presidential vote scheduled for Sunday, Raúl is almost certain to preside over a government based more on a collective style of leadership, and less on personality. A career military man, Raúl is known more for his organizational skills than his charisma.
"He reminds me of an 82nd Airborne sergeant major," said retired U.S. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who met with Raúl in Havana in 2002. "He's gruff, sure of himself. He's a soldier."
There is a slim chance the assembly could choose among two of Fidel's other favorites -- the young, ideological foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, or the more cerebral and technocratic vice president, Carlos Lage. The two have helped Raúl run the country since Fidel became ill.
In the past 12 years, with varying degrees of success, Raúl has pushed reforms his brother had been reluctant to embrace until the fall of the country's biggest financial backer, the Soviet Union.
The younger Castro started slowly, first allowing private ownership of small food markets. Then Raúl, who has been defense minister since 1959, shrank the military. He converted some of his top generals into businessmen so that they could run the tourism empire he built after persuading his brother to allow more foreign investment. The military now presides over a lucrative tourist trade, cutting partnership deals with European hoteliers.
In another apparent break with his brother, Raúl offered a surprise in 1994 when Cubans were fleeing the island. He took to the podium to calm a population struggling to feed itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"Beans," he told a crowd in Havana, "are more important than cannons."
That concise slogan became his most memorable line. Suddenly, a country that had envisioned itself as a place under siege was admitting that feeding its residents meant more than building its military.
As the new flow of tourism dollars eased the crisis, Raúl generally slipped out of the public spotlight again, remaining a mystery to outsiders and to the Cuban people he now leads -- the island's great enigma. He is known as a practical joker, a family man, a guy's guy who drinks whiskey with his generals and dotes on their kids; and he is, as he once described himself, "Raúl the Terrible," the Cuban revolution's executioner in chief, the feared enforcer of the all-powerful Cuban state.
"I like to work in the shadows," Cuban author Norberto Fuentes remembers Raúl telling him years ago. "I like to pull the threads of conspiracy."
Raúl played a key role in building and leading in the Sierra Maestra mountains the legendary guerrilla force that conquered Cuba in 1959. He was the more devout Marxist-Leninist of the Castro brothers and would later travel to the Soviet Union to handle many of the negotiations that brought nuclear weapons to the island and sparked the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
While Fidel was becoming an international political celebrity, Raúl was transforming his mostly illiterate forces into Cuba's most efficient institution. To this day, he is seldom out of military uniform.
Raúl's military now controls about 60 percent of the Cuban economy, according to an analysis by Florida International University economists. He and his generals manage the day-to-day affairs of some of the island's biggest companies.
Last July, Raúl made his most significant appearance as interim president, telling a large crowd in the city of Camaguey that he would aggressively seek business deals with "serious entrepreneurs" from other countries. He peppered his speech at a ceremony commemorating the 54th anniversary of Cuba's revolution with business lingo uncommon in a socialist state, at one point saying Cuba would reach out for "capital, technology or markets."
He also praised a "Chinese model" that allows some private business ventures but retains strict, authoritarian political controls. Those new businesses could allow Cubans, who generally make $30 a month in state salaries, to earn extra money for food or to fix dilapidated homes.
"He'll make changes very gradually, very systematically," José Ignacio Piña Rojas, then Mexico's ambassador to Cuba, said in an interview in Havana in December 2006.
Lage and Pérez Roque could serve as Raúl's lieutenants and successors in waiting.
A pediatrician by training, Lage is generally believed to have the inside track to leading Cuba after the Castros. He is in charge of Cuba's economy and has kept a low profile. Known for his cool, unflappable demeanor, he is considered a facile handler of internal politics.
"He is one of the few figures in the Cuban firmament who can get along with both sides -- the hard-liners and the reformers," Ann Louise Bardach, author of "Cuba Confidential" and the forthcoming "Without Fidel," said in an interview.
Lage was a strong proponent, along with Raúl, of economic reforms allowing more private businesses and foreign investment in the mid-1990s, said Philip Peters, a Cuba specialist at the Arlington, Va.-based pro-democracy Lexington Institute.
"But when Fidel put the brakes on the reforms, he was a loyal soldier," Peters said.
Pérez Roque rose to power after becoming a personal aide to Fidel, who appointed him foreign minister at the age of 34. Unlike Lage, who almost never speaks to the media, the more fiery Pérez Roque made several key pronouncements about Fidel's health during the tense days following the announcement of his illness.
Pérez Roque is known as an exceptionally loyal supporter of his mentor's policies. And because of that, he is being watched closely for clues.
"His future is really a bellwether that is going to tell us a lot about where Cuba is going," Peters said. "He has been the most faithful reflection of Fidel Castro's views."
Pérez Roque made a surprise appearance several weeks ago at a neighborhood meeting, where he stated that Cuba's dual currency system -- workers are paid in pesos, which do not have the same buying power as the hard currency used by tourists and members of the Cuban elite -- creates "a lot of hardships, a lot of inequality," Peters said. The statement caused a ripple of speculation about coming reforms and was considered especially important because Pérez Roque, the staunch Fidel loyalist, was speaking out against a monetary system that the ailing leader has long supported.
While there may be changes with Fidel out of power, Fuentes, the Cuban writer and a former close friend of the Castros, said one thing that would remain the same under Raúl is Cuba's animosity toward its long-avowed enemy, the United States. In an interview last year, Fuentes recalled visiting Raúl once and listening to his friend talk about the bed he was sleeping on, a bed that had belonged to Fulgencio Batista, the dictator toppled by the Castro-led revolution.
"Norberto," Fuentes remembers Raúl telling him, "you have to take everything from your enemies, right down to their beds."