By Dr. Brian Latell, author of After Fidel and Senior Research Associate at ICCAS.
(original title: Raul on his own)
During his record-making run as Cuba’s defense minister—longer he says than anyone in history—Raul Castro wisely shied from the limelight. But since last February when he assumed Cuba’s presidency he has had no choice but to assume a more public role, addressing Cuban audiences and meeting abroad with foreign leaders and reporters much more often than he would like. These demands have put him under unaccustomed new pressure. And, judging from his recent performances, he has been handling them so ineptly that his ability to govern credibly once Fidel is gone seems more in doubt than before.
It was always Fidel’s preference that his now seventy-seven year-old brother remain in the background, and not just because he never wanted to share the stage with anyone else. It was also because Fidel recognized Raul’s inability to deliver a good speech, to perform reliably under stress, or to improvise cleverly calibrated responses to foreign reporters’ probing questions.
Raul is awkward in the give-and-take of press conferences and interviews, and, knowing his limitations, in the past granted on average only about one every two years. He has never been able to deliver a stem-winder, to inspire or excite an audience. He is lacking not just in charismatic qualities but in the most elementary forensic and performance skills. He is lethargic, and often obviously stressed, when carrying out public duties. But most problematic is Raul’s propensity to stumble in public appearances, to say or do embarrassing things that sometimes leave his audiences squirming in embarrassment.
These deficiencies have probably never been so apparent as they were in December during his first foreign excursion as Cuba’s president. In Caracas, interacting with Venezuelan president Chavez, and later in Salvador, Brazil where he attended a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders, Raul frequently bungled in public. He was alternately diffident, clumsy, and outrageous, and may have been inebriated during an event in Brazil where he interacted in public with Chavez in the presence of other regional leaders. His mishaps, some of which were covered by the Cuban media, can only have diminished him in the eyes of all those who automatically tend to compare him to his brother.
Surely he wishes he could retract remarks made during a meeting with two foreign reporters in Salvador on December 15. A female journalist he remembered from her years of reporting from Havana asked at the outset if he remembered her. “You look prettier now,” was his uncouth response. “Commander, please!,” she responded in evident embarrassment.
Disconcerted after that, Raul was lackluster for the rest of that appearance. Asked about his expectations for the historic summit of the Rio Group of Latin American leaders—the first time a Cuban president was invited to attend—he was insipid. All he could say was that: “My first hope for the summit is that it be successful.” Anyone hearing that would have known how imaginatively and elaborately Fidel would have responded.
At another, televised gathering in Salvador, where Raul appeared to have had too much to drink, his performance bordered on buffoonery. Chavez was at the lectern freely pontificating, when he turned to Raul, seated nearby, and summoned him to speak. Obediently, Cuba’s president approached and for a minute or two found himself sheepishly under the Venezuelan’s enveloping arm.
But Chavez was noticeably uncomfortable when Raul ridiculed him. “I don’t talk as much as Chavez” he said, to the embarrassed laughter of many in the audience. “I even turn the volume down on my television when he is delivering his very long discourses.” The television camera then panned to a distinctly irritated Chavez.
Four days later in a speech at a luncheon held in his honor in Brasilia Raul strayed precipitously from what appeared to be a prepared text. “I will not go on for long, he interjected. “It is said Fidel’s speeches were long, though not as long as Chavez’s… I am less intelligent than they are, and cannot speak of many things, much less to improvise them.” The official Cuban government transcript of the speech included this strange, incriminating admission. How difficult it is to imagine another world leader, no matter how new to their job or clumsy as a public speaker, admitting to such limitations.
Raul’s relationship with Chavez has long been rumored to be a tortured one, and these interactions between the two only fuel such speculation. After all the decades of subordinating himself to the overbearing and demanding Fidel, it does not seem possible that Raul would now relish playing second fiddle to the bombastic Venezuelan. Chavez has been in power for about ten years now, and hosted Fidel on several occasions. But it was not evident until Raul spoke in Caracas on December 13 that he had apparently not also been welcomed and feted there. Raul mentioned that he was glad to be back in Venezuela again. But he revealed that his first visit had been fifty-five years earlier.
Back in Cuba, Raul delivered two major speeches to audiences of Cuban officials. Speaking to the National Assembly on December 27 he was at his dull, bureaucratic best. He was generally downbeat and dour, unfurling no new initiatives for Cuba’s prostrate economy. And on January 1, speaking in Santiago on the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution, he returned to the theme that has obsessed Cuba’s leaders since Fidel himself first broached it in November 2005. Thinking of the country’s disenchanted youth, he said “This country can destroy itself.”
But Cuba’s aged new leader who performs so poorly as a public communicator, and who openly admits his intellectual limitations, has done nothing in many months to increase his credibility as the moment seems to be approaching that Fidel will permanently depart the scene.