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The Many Faces of Cuba

The Nation's Most Influential People Range from Political Leaders Such as Raúl Castro to Athletes, Musicians and Writers
Manuel Sanchez
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

RAUL CASTRO The second-most powerful figure in Cuba today is Raúl Castro: minister of defense, second secretary of the Communist Party, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and, most importantly, Fidel Castro's younger brother.

Raúl Castro was born in the early 1930s in Biran, a village in Cuba's eastern province of Holguín, the youngest of three brothers in a family of eight children. He was with Fidel in the 1953 attack on the Moncada citadel in Santiago de Cuba, the most important fortress of Fulgencio Batista's government. Then, in 1956, he was a member of the Granma expedition, a voyage led by Fidel in which his band of Cuban revolutionaries sailed from their exile in Mexico to Cuba's eastern shores. Once there, the group was met by government forces, but a dozen of the rebels, including the Castro brothers, escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains to begin the revolution.

After the armed campaign began, Raúl organized, at his brother's request, a second front on the eastern end of the island. Despite the family tie and Fidel's professed faith in him, Raúl wasn't chosen for the decisive battle. Instead, commanders Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che"Guevara led the invasion from east and west, respectively. Raúl continued his operations in the Sierra Madre, gaining prestige among his comrades. Ultimately, he was among the first rebel officers in the triumphal entry into Havana on January 1, 1959.

From the outset, Raúl was made head of the General Command of the FAR, and on October 16, 1959, when the Ministry of Defense was formed, he was elected its first (and only) minister. A reward for his reliability followed: in 1960, when Fidel went to New York to address the United Nations, Raúl stayed on as prime minister, heading the country in his brother's absence. In 1973, Raúl was promoted to division commander and, three years later, to general of the army.

Over the decades, the Cuban army has participated--with and without the Soviet Union--in conflicts in Angola, Ethiopia and Nicaragua, and has provided military consultation in Syria, Algeria and the Congo. Once the best-equipped and best-trained fighting force in Latin America--under the admonition, as stated by Raúl, to defend Cuba from a hypothetical U.S. invasion--the army, like the rest of Cuba's infrastructure, has recently fallen on hard times.

Today, Raúl, accompanied by a group of assistants, carries out inspections throughout Cuba. One of his duties is to oversee the "whole people's war," a plan to organize civilians into organized militias and production and defense brigades. Periodic exercises are still mandated, despite their unpopularity with many Cubans.

In his travels, Raúl examines not only military questions but also economic issues and, above all, the political climate. As the revolution ages, Raúl continues to tighten the government's control of Cuban society. Today, Cubans can hardly make a move without accounting for it to the authorities.

The general has a resonant voice and a direct look: when he speaks, his subordinates listen. He is unlikely to be contradicted. He likes to share and to joke; his personality is typically Cuban. When he speaks he gesticulates for emphasis. He almost always wears his uniform. Only in recent years has he started wearing a civilian suit to carry out his functions as deputy party secretary.

He was formerly married to Vilma Espin, whom he had met during the Sierra Maestra days; Espin is in charge of the Cuban Women's Federation (FMC).

Raúl was never an intellectual; he dropped out of college early. Little by little, he gained the reputation of a strong man who made quick but irrevocable decisions. This reputation has held. It is visible in his rough and implacable way of dealing with enemies, and it resounds in the tone of his speeches.


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