Cuba’s transition moves the 89-year-old Raúl Castro nearer to the day that he, like his brother Fidel, who handed Raúl full political control in 2011 and passed away at 90 in 2016, may die without ever being held accountable for what he did in power.
This is surely Raúl’s plan, too; despite the grandfatherly image he has cultivated in later years, along with that of a would-be “reformer,” he has more than a little blood on his hands.
The trail begins in the Sierra Maestra mountains, even before the Rebel Army ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959. Photographs show Raúl blindfolding a purported traitor moments before a firing squad takes the man’s life — one of many such murders in rebel ranks.
On Jan. 12 of that year, Raúl supervised summary executions of some 70 alleged former Batista regime police and soldiers, their bodies dumped in a ditch outside the city of Santiago on the island’s eastern tip.
At the time, Sen. Wayne Morse (D-Ore.) called this “a bloodbath,” but at least its authors could claim to be imposing “revolutionary justice” against the previous regime.
There was no such justification for the forced labor camps in which 35,000 Cubans, mostly gay men, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others deemed in need of reeducation through work, were interned between 1965 and 1968. Conditions were brutal; some 70 died from torture and 180 committed suicide.
Raúl was still defense minister in the 1970s, when Cuban troops intervened to protect the Marxist dictatorship of Ethiopia. They stood by the regime in Addis Ababa as its leader, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, massacred 10,000 opponents during the “Red Terror” of 1976 to 1978, and as hundreds of thousands starved to death due to Mengistu’s forced collectivization of agriculture in the mid-1980s.
In 1989, Fidel and Raúl turned the revolution’s guns on top members of the Cuban nomenklatura, executing four of them on trumped-up treason and drug trafficking charges. The accused’s real offense seems to have been defying the Castro brothers’ authority.
In 1996, Cuban military jets under Raúl’s command shot down two U.S.-based Cessnas as they flew over international waters, trying to help the U.S. Coast Guard aid Cubans escaping the island in rafts. All four Cuban Americans aboard were killed.
There is not enough space in this column for the thousands of Cubans (and others) who died, faced imprisonment or suffered in other ways, including Walterio Carbonell, a Black Marxist intellectual imprisoned in 1968 for insisting the revolution do more to fight racism.
Nor is it possible to disentangle Raúl’s culpability from that of Fidel, his older, dominant, brother, who usually called the shots, but who relied throughout on Raúl’s steadfast complicity.
Definitive judgments would require an investigation — of the kind that commissions and, to a limited degree, courts, conducted during the democratic transitions of Chile, El Salvador, South Africa and Eastern Europe.
Raúl’s carefully staged exit, though, makes such an exercise in retrospective justice for Cuba unlikely during his lifetime.
Improbably, given the downfall of Cuba’s Soviet sponsor 30 years ago, both Raúl and Cuban communism have lasted long enough to see a resurgence of pro-Cuban leftism in Latin America, accompanied by a decline in the global standing of the Cuban Revolution’s great antagonist, the United States, due in part to the demagogic presidency of Donald Trump, the police killing of Black people and the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Memory, and truth, may yet prevent Raúl Castro, and his dynastic successors, from writing his page in history unopposed.
He doesn’t seem concerned, though — and hasn’t for some time. Two years ago, at the Russian Embassy in Havana, he was awarded the Order of Lenin by a representative of the Communist Party of Russia, successor to the Soviet party that Raúl first adhered to as a teen when he joined the youth wing of its Cuban affiliate.
Raúl’s expression as he accepted the medal and embraced his old Russian comrade was relaxed and delighted. It was the look of a winner.