Raúl Castro biography
Date of birth : 1931-06-03
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Birán, Oriente Province, Cuba
Nationality : Cuban
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-07-23
Credited as : Politician, President of Cuba, World's political leader
Raúl Castro is, in many respects, an unlikely world leader. Although he became president of Cuba in 2008, he has spent much of his life in the shadow of his older brother, long-time Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. While he has played a key role in governing Cuba for decades, Raúl has remained relatively unknown to people outside of his native country. Indeed, the contrasts between Raúl Castro and his more famous sibling are numerous. While Fidel has been beloved by many Cubans for his charisma and idealism, Raúl is recognized more for his quiet, pensive manner; Fidel is serious and resolute, whereas Raúl is self-deprecating and has a sense of humor. Throughout the Castro regime, Raúl has tended to remain out of the spotlight, content to govern from the sidelines while his brother has acted as both leader and symbol of the Cuban Revolution.
Still, in the eyes of most foreign policy experts, there is no question that Raúl Castro has emerged as a formidable leader in his own right. His effectiveness as a military commander has gone unquestioned since he first took charge of the Cuban army following the 1959 revolution. At the same time, while Fidel Castro has remained doggedly committed to the revolutionary foundations of modern Cuba, Raúl has demonstrated an element of adaptability, a quality that has become more apparent since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Long considered to be more devoted to communist ideology than his brother, Raúl has also shown himself to be more flexible and pragmatic than Fidel, particularly in relation to economic policy. Since becoming Cuban president, Raúl Castro has found himself in a new position, forced to reconcile his past ideals with the political and economic demands of the twenty-first century.
Raúl Castro was born near Birán, a town in the former Oriente Province of Cuba, on June 3, 1931. He was the youngest son of Ángel Castro, a sugar farmer, and Lina Ruz González. Following in his older brother Fidel's footsteps, Raúl attended the Colegio Dolores in Santiago and the Colegio de Belén in Havana, Jesuit preparatory schools. He later studied at the University of Havana, although he never completed a degree. In 1953 Raúl traveled to Vienna to attend the World Youth Congress, a gathering of international Communists, and later visited the Soviet satellite states of Czechoslovakia and Romania. Upon returning to Havana later that year, Raúl became involved with Juventud Socialista, a communist youth group.
That summer, Raúl joined Fidel in attempting to overthrow the government of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. On July 26, 1953, the brothers led an assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, one of the nation's largest military bases. The revolt was ultimately thwarted, and Raúl and Fidel were arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In the face of international protest, Batista granted the brothers amnesty in 1955, and they regained their freedom after serving less than two years. The brothers fled to Mexico, where they devoted the next year to plotting another coup; their new insurrection was dubbed the "26th of July Movement," after the date of their original attack at Moncada. While in Mexico, Raúl met Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an Argentine revolutionary. Raúl introduced Guevara to Fidel, and the three men quickly became close friends and co-conspirators.
In late 1956, Raúl, Fidel, and a group of approximately 80 soldiers, among them Guevara, sailed to Cuba on board the Granma, a small sailing vessel; Granma would later become the name of the official Communist newspaper of Cuba. Upon landing, the boat was met by government troops, and a number of rebels were captured. Raúl, his brother, and Guevara managed to escape into the mountains. For the next three years, Raúl played a key role in the insurrection, leading the guerilla group Segundo Frente Oriental "Frank Pais" on paramilitary expeditions in the northeastern region of the country. The brothers finally seized power on January 1, 1959. Fidel became president of Cuba, while Raúl was named the Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. A year after the coup, Raúl married fellow revolutionary Vilma Espín; the couple would eventually have three daughters and one son. Over the next few years, Raúl oversaw the execution of several hundred soldiers who had fought on the side of deposed president Batista.
Raúl excelled as leader of the Cuban military, and soon transformed the revolutionary guerilla soldiers into a well-disciplined and centralized fighting force. He also modernized the military by stockpiling weapons, many of them acquired from Cuba's new ally, the Soviet Union, as well as a number of Western European nations. One of his first successes as a military commander came in 1961, when he successfully repelled the Bay of Pigs invasion, a U.S.-led attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. A year later, Raúl traveled to Moscow, where he signed an agreement authorizing the Soviet Union to send military aid to Cuba; part of the treaty involved the shipment of nuclear arms. When U.S. intelligence discovered that the Soviet Union was planning to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, tensions arose between the two superpowers, and Cuba was caught in the middle. This conflict became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the face of U.S. pressure, Cuba was forced to abandon its plans to acquire nuclear capability.
In 1965, Raúl became Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the newly formed Cuban Communist Party, a position that granted him greater power. Under Raúl's leadership, Cuban political activities became consolidated under one-party rule, and dissenters were persecuted. At the same time, Raúl played an important part in strengthening relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union; the two nations frequently conducted military exercises together, and Soviet military advisors established a stronger presence in Cuba. During the 1970s, Cuba also began to contribute military assistance to other communist regimes, sending large portions of the Cuban army to aid uprisings in Ethiopia and Angola. In recognition of his efforts in support of the communist cause, Raúl received several honors from the Soviet Union during the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the Medal for Strengthening of Brotherhood in Arms (1977), the Order of Lenin (c. 1978), and the Order of the October Revolution (1981).
During the 1980s, Raúl oversaw a transformation of the country's armaments industry, introducing monetary incentives designed to increase production and efficiency. Over time, these methods began to find their way into the country's other industries, signaling a significant shift in the nation's economic philosophy, as Cuba began to implement policies more consistent with capitalist models. Throughout these years, Raúl was also responsible for suppressing opposition to the Castro regime. One notable purge came in 1989, when Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez was convicted of corruption and drug trafficking. Raúl Castro played a prominent role in Sanchez's trial, denouncing his former colleague as a traitor. According to many observers, the Sanchez scandal took an enormous personal toll on Raúl, while also threatening to undermine his credibility as the country's military leader.
In the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Raúl began to play a more involved role in the shaping of domestic policy. With the loss of its principal ally and trading partner--as well as a source of much-needed economic subsidies--Cuba fell into a severe downturn during the early 1990s, and public dissatisfaction began to spread. As leader of the Cuban military, Raúl heard many first-hand accounts of the unrest, as troops reported incidents of protests and demonstrations throughout the countryside. In 1994, upheaval hit the Cuban capital of Havana as demonstrators filled the streets. In spite of this security threat, Raúl did not call on the army to suppress the uprising. Instead, he promptly set out to implement reforms.
Under Raúl's guidance, the military began to assume an active part in running the Cuban economy. Soldiers took responsibility for overseeing manufacturing operations, managing construction projects, and producing food. Raúl Castro arranged to send several leading military officers to Europe, where they studied business and finance. Tourism in particular seemed a promising area for growth, and Raúl devoted a great deal of energy toward exploiting the island nation's allure among travelers. He created a military-run organization, La Gaviota, dedicated to constructing and marketing resorts and hotels. Even army generals became involved in the revitalized tourism trade, shedding their uniforms to take over hotel management positions. Soon, La Gaviota was generating roughly 60 percent of Cuba's tourism income.
While Raúl's new policies brought better living circumstances for many Cubans, some communist hardliners opposed the trend toward a market economy. Party leader Raúl Valdes Vivo was among the most outspoken critics of Raúl's reforms. In a newspaper article published in December of 1996, Vivo warned that opening the Cuban economy to investment might initiate a transformation that Raúl Castro would find himself unable to control. Vivo compared capitalists to "piranhas" capable of devouring a horse. Since Cubans often referred to Fidel Castro as "El Caballo," or "the horse," Vivo's choice of metaphor seemed like a direct affront to the dictator's younger brother.
On the opposite end of the spectrum stood the United States. In spite of the capitalist underpinnings of Raúl's reforms, the U.S. remained wary of the Cuban government's capacity for meaningful change. For one, the economic overhaul hardly represented an endorsement of democracy, as Raúl ultimately remained in charge of all Cuban economic activities. At the same time, Raúl's new policies were accompanied by a period of heightened repression, as he targeted reformers and academics whose ideas had strayed too far from the party line. In order to make its fundamental opposition to Cuban reform absolutely clear, the U.S. Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which explicitly stated that there could be no normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations as long as either Castro was in power. In October of 1997, arguably as a direct retort to the new U.S. law, Fidel Castro formally named Raúl as his political successor. In the eyes of many experts, the announcement signified Raúl's steadily increasing role in leading the country.
In the early years of the new century, the possibility of Raúl's ascendancy began to seem increasingly real. In the summer of 2006, Fidel Castro suddenly became seriously ill. Raúl became acting President of Cuba, raising speculation about the nation's future. As Raúl suddenly rose to international prominence, he became the subject of greater scrutiny among analysts in the United States. In assessing the emerging leader's personality, many observers regarded him as a contradictory, enigmatic figure. As Anthony DePalma and James C. McKinley, Jr. wrote in the New York Times, over the course of his life Raúl Castro has been "alternatively described by those who know him as ruthless and compassionate, as an executioner and as an executive, as a rigid Communist and a practical manager of economic and security matters."
Tragedy struck Raúl Castro's life in 2007, when his long-time wife Vilma died at the age of 77. The New York Times noted that Vilma was a "widely recognized symbol of the Castro family's half-century grip on power," while suggesting that her death came at a "critical moment in Cuban history." Indeed, with the real extent of Fidel Castro's illness shrouded in secrecy, the future of Cuban politics had become uncertain. On February 24, 2008, the Cuban National Assembly officially elected Raúl the nation's new president. In his acceptance speech, Raúl insisted that the change in power would not signify a radical shift in policy; he also asserted that Fidel Castro was still an active participant in the government, and that he would consult his brother on all major policy decisions.
Many outside observers saw these pledges as politically motivated, suggesting that Raúl's loyalty to his brother would ease public concerns during the transition. Indeed, within weeks it became apparent that Raúl Castro might be leading Cuba down a new path, as he promised to overhaul the government bureaucracy and decentralize certain government industries, notably milk production. Raúl also opened up the political process to the public, organizing meetings where everyday citizens could voice their opinions. Although Raúl Castro would retain final say on all policy decisions, his willingness to listen to dissenting views marked a significant departure from his brother's governing style. Still, this period of uncertainty brought new challenges as other forces vied for power in the post-Fidel era. After Raúl successfully thwarted an attempted coup in March of 2009, it became clear that he would need to remain vigilant in the face of Cuba's shifting political landscape.
Born Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz, June 3, 1931, in Birán, Oriente Province, Cuba; son of Ángel Castro (a sugar farmer) and Lina Ruz Conzález; married Vilma Espín (a revolutionary and feminist), 1959 (died, 2007); children: Déborah, Mariela, Nilsa (daughter), Alejandro. Education: Attended the University of Havana, Cuba. Addresses: Office--Palicio del Gobierno, Havana, Cuba.
Medal for Strengthening of Brotherhood in Arms, Soviet Union, 1977; Order of Lenin, Soviet Union, c. 1978; Order of the October Revolution, Soviet Union, 1981; Order Máximo Gómez, 1998.
Assisted brother Fidel in failed uprising against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, 1953; sentenced to 15 years in prison, 1953 (released, 1955); led Segundo Frente Oriental "Frank Pais" guerilla unit in second Cuban rebellion, 1956-59; Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, 1959-2008; Deputy Prime Minister of Cuban Councils of State, 1962-72; First Deputy Prime Minister, 1972-76; Vice-President of Cuba, 1976-2006; acting president of Cuba, 2006-08; president, 2008--.