The Many Faces of Cuba

The Nation's Most Influential People Range from Political Leaders Such as Raúl Castro to Athletes, Musicians and Writers
| By Manuel Sanchez | From 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.

Nowhere was this more obvious then in 1989, when he handed down the death sentences of several top military officers, some of whom were his friends. The officers were convicted of drug trafficking and were executed by firing squads.

Because of his age, Raúl Castro is unlikely to succeed Fidel as Cuba's leader. But for now, the younger Castro is Cuba's iron fist.

RICARDO ALARCON President of the National Assembly of the People's Power (Cuba's parliament), Ricardo Alarcon speaks emphatically about just about everything to everyone.

He is one of the ideologues of the Cuban revolution, with a diplomatic career that began as a regional political director of the chancellery. He later served as ambassador to the United Nations, foreign minister and chancellor, a position he gave up in 1993 when he was made head of parliament.

Alarcon is the Cuban leader who has traveled most widely in the United States. On several occasions, he granted interviews to North American television networks, speaking in fluent English. As head of parliament he holds strong opinions, one of them being that the U.S. government is Enemy No. 1. Castro relies upon Alarcon to make complicated explanations to the Cuban people about issues of the day, with speeches that overflow with facts, theories and phrases.

LEONARDO PADURA Those who pass Leonardo Padura on the streets of Havana would hardly suspect that this unassuming 43-year-old man is one of Cuba's most important writers.

In 1988 he was on the jury of the Walsh Prize of the Institute of the International Association of Mystery Writers. In 1991 he received attention for his story, "El Cazador," in the Mexican magazine Plural, and in 1997, he co-wrote the script of Yo Soy del Son a la Salsa, a Cuban documentary on popular Caribbean dance music. Working on the film gave him the opportunity to visit New York City several times. In 1998, he won the Café Gijon Prize for his 1997 mystery novel, Mascaras, a story that is rife with social commentary on the state of contemporary Cuba. First published abroad, the sale of the book was, until recently, banned in Cuba.

Sincere, adventurous, at once affable and intellectual, Padura represents a class of Cuba's writers who, in the future, may be able to work with greater freedom.

ANA FIDELIA QUIROT In 1993, Ana Fidelia Quirot, then 29, suffered an accident at her home that caused burns on her face, neck and abdomen. Two years later, in a testament to her perserverance and will, she returned to the track. She won the 800-meter race at the World Championships in 1995 and 1997, and captured the silver medal in the event at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She is not only the best-known female athlete in Cuba, but she is known in track circles around the world.

In 1989, Quirot won three World Cup championships, in the 400- and 800-meter dashes and in the 400-meter relay. That year, Quirot was voted Latin American Woman Athlete of the Year by the Latin American press, as well as Track and Field News' Athlete of the Year. Known as Es Estandarte (The Caribbean Storm), Quirot is a favorite of Fidel Castro's. A sports fan, Castro asked her to accompany him in 1990 as part of a Cuban delegation to Brazil. She is now a deputy in Cuba's parliament.

EUSEBIO LEAL One of Cuba's most noted historians, Eusebio Leal is on a crusade to save La Habana Vieja, Havana's Old City, and he is armed with a powerful weapon--the unconditional support of the Cuban government. A member of the Communist Party identified more by his links to President Fidel Castro than by his profession, Leal, 56, was given control of the Old City's rebirth five years ago and has been working hard to restore its former splendor. (For more on the renovation of La Habana Vieja, turn to page 252.)

Home to hundreds of buildings dating as far back as the sixteenth century, the 1.75-square-mile La Habana Vieja had been neglected for most of this century. Under Leal's direction, renovation efforts have enabled hotels, boutiques, cafés and restaurants to occupy some of the Old City's once-crumbling structures. Working through a government-run company called Habaguanex, Leal chooses the restoration sites and oversees the architects and contractors. It's a role he clearly relishes.

CARLOS VARELA Those who publicly disagree with the Cuban revolution are not often allowed to live on the island. But 36-year-old Carlos Varela writes and sings complicated songs that repeatedly criticize the regime, yet he remains in Havana. This is the singer and songwriter who, besides being an idol to many young people, offers food for thought to Fidel's followers and detractors alike.

In 1989, Varela went on stage for the first time. Eight years later, he attracted 5,000 spectators to Havana's Karl Marx Theater. Tunes such as "William Tell"-in which he confronts the struggle between the generations with such lyrics as: "William Tell doesn't understand his son, who, one day, got tired of the apple on his head"-keep Varela a hot topic in Cuban society.

Many of the balseros (raft refugees) who, risking their lives, emigrated in 1994 on rudimentary boats from Cuba to Miami, recall him fondly and send him postcards.

CARLOS LAGE The man assigned the daunting task of curing the island's ailing economy is a medical doctor by profession who has become one of Cuba's most powerful figures. Carlos Lage's work as head of the Federation of University Students (FEU) in the 1970s was a preamble to directing Cuba's Communist youth organization and becoming one of Fidel's favorites. Castro sent him to Ethiopia from 1980 to 1982 as part of a Cuban medical and military contingent. Upon his return, Lage began his rise to power and today oversees the nation's struggling economy. The 47-year-old Lage, Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers and vice president of the National Assembly of State, is considered a possible successor to Castro.

Although not averse to making speeches, Lage is a man of few words in private. Tall and robust with a penetrating gaze, he is someone who carefully weighs his words, intent on finding a solution to the crisis that Castro blames on the U.S. embargo.

MANOLIN While his admirers in Havana wonder what his future intentions are, 33-year-old musician Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez, known as Manolín, is making plans to travel throughout the United States.

Born in Guantánamo, Manolín worked as a physician for five years before turning to music. "The Doctor of Salsa," as he is called, has toured the world with his 15-member orchestra. He visited Miami last October, appearing in a number of nightclubs. Though his appearances were overshadowed by bomb threats and anti-Castro demonstrations, many Cuban residents supported him, and his performances were greeted enthusiastically.

When the time came to return to Cuba, Manolín chose to remain in America to perform, vowing to return home someday and hoping that his music remains popular in his native land. One of his recent songs has already caught on there, not without raising eyebrows. It's called "Mami, ya tengo amigos en Miami" ("Mama, I already have friends in Miami").

ROBERTO ROBAINA Few who knew Roberto Robaina in his days as a schoolteacher would ever have imagined he would become Cuba's foreign minister. Originally from Pinar del Río, the 43-year-old Robaina's rise to power has been rapid. In the 1980s, a patriarchal glance from Fidel prefigured his future: as part of the effort to transform him into a soldier and political boss, Robaina was sent to Angola, where one thousand other Cubans were already stationed, carrying out military missions.

Upon his return he was appointed head of the Communist youth movement. Although Robaina had no schooling in diplomacy, he is a highly charismatic leader. His talent for delivering impassioned speeches--one shared by El Jefe--prompted Fidel to name him foreign minister in 1993. In addition to his foreign ministry post, Robaina is a member of the Council of State and Politburo of the Communist Party, one of Cuba's most powerful political bodies.

TEOFILO STEVENSON Three-time Olympic heavyweight boxing champion Teófilo Stevenson is considered a perfect gentleman by his adversaries.

With gold medals from the 1972, '76 and '80 Olympic Games and a longtime reputation for sportsmanship, Stevenson has received numerous honors, including UNESCO's Pierre de Coubertin Fair Play prize in Paris in 1989. At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, he was the only Latin American among 25 athletes honored in ceremonies commemorating the centenary of the modern Olympics.

Stevenson retired from the ring in 1986. Today, at the age of 47, he is vice president of the Cuban Boxing Federation and a deputy in Cuba's parliament. In a country with a wealth of talented boxers, a land where the sport of boxing ranks second only to baseball in spectator popularity, the legend of Teófilo Stevenson and his 20-year amateur career lives on.

JAVIER SOTOMAYOR The story goes that Cuba track star Javier Sotomayor was in Athens at a meet in 1988 when he broke one of his shoes before the high jump event. When he visited a nearby sporting goods store to buy a new pair, the owner offered him $1 million to promote a line of sporting goods and clothes. Sotomayor refused, telling the man that he would never be bought by anyone, no matter how great the inducement.

Sotomayor, 31, continues to compete. He is perhaps the best-known athlete in Cuba and remains the world record holder for the high jump. He first earned the designation in 1986 in Budapest, then broke his record three years later, with a jump of 8 feet. He won the gold medal in the high jump at the 1992 Olympics, and the following year he bettered the world record again with a leap of 8 feet 1/2 inch, a mark that still stands.

In January 1998, he was admitted into the Cuban parliament. He continually makes goodwill tours throughout the island to stay close to his fellow Cubans.


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