Reuters | By Anthony Boadle
Raul Castro, Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s younger brother and designated successor, is no spring chicken.
The world’s longest-serving defense minister will be 75 on Saturday, and many wonder whether he is too old to fill his brother’s over-sized shoes if he outlives the president.
The elder Castro himself recently suggested a younger generation will have to take up the baton if Cuba’s socialist society is to survive.
“If something happens to me tomorrow, without any doubt the National Assembly will meet and elect him,” Castro, who turns 80 in August, said in a recently published interview.
“But he is getting on in years too. It has become more of a generational problem,” the Cuban leader told Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in a book of interviews.
Lacking his brother’s booming personality and oratorical flair, the self-effacing Raul keeps a low profile and shuns the press. Little is known about his personal life or his health.
But Cuba watchers say he is no obsequious subaltern in the communist state the two brothers built after their rag-tag guerrilla force ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution.
Raul Castro has headed the Cuban armed forces ever since as minister of defense, and is first vice-president of the Council of State, constitutionally first in line to take over from the president in case of absence, illness or death.
The No. 2 in Cuba’s political hierarchy also wields political influence in Castro’s shadow as second secretary of the ruling Communist Party.
The U.S. government is determined to stop Raul from leading a succession in Communist Cuba. The Helms-Burton Law passed in 1996 ensures that U.S. economic sanctions enforced against Havana for more than four decades are maintained as long as either of the two brothers remain in power.
Yet most analysts believe Raul is bound to play a crucial role, at least initially, in any political transition once his brother has left the scene, while ensuring military stability.
“In a post-Fidel Cuba, Raul would provide an important leadership role, stepping into the void left by his brother,” said Canadian historian John Kirk of Dalhousie University in Halifax. “This would probably be a transitional contribution.”
Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst who has watched Cuba for decades, believes Raul, once an orthodox Communist and now a pragmatist, will emerge as Cuba’s next leader with the backing of the army, keep the lid on dissent and push through economic reforms following China’s model.
“A praetorian regime dominated by Raul and the generals seems all but certain, though for how long is impossible to know,” he wrote in his book “After Fidel.”
Raul backed reforms that opened up limited private initiative such as freer farmers’ markets during Cuba’s economic crisis after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
He redirected the Cuban military away from foreign wars against colonialism in Africa and turned it into a major economic player with interests in tourism and lucrative retail, engineering, computing and communications businesses.
The army was the first institution in Cuba to introduce capitalist business administration methods.
Still, Kirk believes it would be wrong to bank on Raul Castro leading Cuba along the Chinese path of capitalist development under Communist political control.
“There is a generation of Cuban leaders in their 40s and 50s more than prepared to develop a home-grown model,” he said.
Raul Castro would face enormous expectations for economic liberalization and political renewal if he succeeds Fidel.
Less publicly visible than other leaders, such as National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon or vice-president Carlos Laje, Raul lacks Fidel’s legitimacy among Cubans, said Dan Erikson, of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
Cuba has not officially debated the question of succession since the last Communist Party Congress in 1997.
“Many in the Cuban leadership are hesitant to push for a change from Raul, knowing that this could open a Pandora’s box that could provoke infighting,” Erikson said.