Miami Herald Staff Report
For an engineer named Ismael, Cuban leader Fidel Castro is ‘‘charismatic and super-intelligent.’’ But he doesn’t feel the same way about Fidel’s brother and designated successor, Ra�l Castro.
‘‘He’s too hard-line,’’ said Ismael, in the kind of comment about Ra�l made repeatedly by Cubans approached on the streets of Havana. ``He’s surrounded by hard-liners. I met him once. He seemed very serious.’‘
Ra�l’s lack of affection among Cubans, after 47 years of playing the tough cop for his older brother, may well hamper his ability to govern and could force him to open up the communist-ruled island’s economy after Fidel dies, said several analysts who have followed his career.
‘‘Ra�l has to establish a new basis of legitimacy,’’ Frank Mora, a professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College in Washington said by telephone. ``He can’t govern like Fidel. Fidel has a unique, personal and charismatic style that no one else can match.
``Ra�l doesn’t have those skills. But he knows that he needs to meet the expectations of pent-up demand. People will not make political demands if they have economic progress.’‘
The 80-year-old Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother, five years younger and Cuba’s defense minister for four decades, on July 31 after undergoing emergency surgery for internal bleeding from a still unexplained ailment.
Ra�l Castro’s public appearances and statements since then have been few, although he is expected to take center stage for the first time ever by filling in for his brother at the Non-Aligned Summit of 116 nations that began Monday in Havana.
Until now, Ra�l Castro has been content to operate in his brother’s shadow. He earned a reputation as a hard-liner in the early days of the revolution by overseeing the execution of soldiers and followers of the deposed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro, in an oft-quoted 1959 comment, said his brother was more radical than he was.
Indeed, during the first 30 years of the Cuban Revolution, Ra�l Castro seemed to be a faithful follower of Soviet dogma and occasionally warned his brother publicly against taking a softer economic or political line.
All of that might explain why Cubans recently interviewed on the streets of Havana consistently said they held negative views of Ra�l.
‘‘People don’t like him. They think he’s too warlike,’’ a school custodian named Mario said as he stood in the doorway of the colonial-era Old Havana neighborhood. ``I’m afraid that the Bush administration will say something that will provoke him.’‘
‘‘Ra�l wants to show that he’s in charge. But he doesn’t have Fidel’s charisma,’’ said a man who gave his name only as Alberto.
‘‘Ra�l is crazy. He’s crazier than Fidel,’’ said 20-year-old Reinier, who served two years in the military.
Ra�l Castro actually has become more flexible in recent years, although public opinion of him remains unchanged, said Brian Latell, a retired CIA Cuba specialist and author of the recently published book, After Fidel.
`ADVOCATE OF REFORM’
Since 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘‘he’s been an advocate of reform,’’ said Latell. ``He’s the only top-level Cuban official who has had success in implementing change, within the military.’‘
Latell added that it was Ra�l who pushed Fidel, after Cuba’s loss of massive Soviet subsidies, to allow the opening of markets where farmers can sell some of their products at prices set by supply and demand, and other small enterprises like privately run restaurants.
Fidel Castro retrenched on some of those changes in recent years, but Ra�l meanwhile has put many of his military officers to work managing a slew of government agencies, most of them in the tourism sector, as if they were private enterprises.
‘‘Public perception has not caught up with the changing reality of Ra�l,’’ Latell said.
Eugenio Ya�ez, who taught economics to high-level Cuban government officials before defecting in 1993, said the low public esteem of Ra�l matters little, given Cuba’s highly effective and harsh domestic security system.
Ya�ez said he does not expect Ra�l to make populist gestures aimed at boosting his public approval, as a politician facing elections in a democracy might do.
‘‘To be popular, Ra�l doesn’t need to take populist actions,’’ Ya�ez said in a telephone interview. ``He needs to provide more food, transportation and housing. Because he is not as popular as Fidel, he cannot ask for trust and support in exchange for nothing.
``He would make changes not because he believes in liberty or democracy, but because he needs to improve the lives of people to avoid a social explosion. Without changes, his power could be in jeopardy.’’