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Raul Castro seen as hard-line, pragmatic reformer for Cuba

MIAMI – A Cuba where its people can travel abroad and sell their cars and homes without government controls. A Cuba with more private farmers, more market forces and perhaps even a radically overhauled top leadership.

That’s a Cuba far from its current version, marked by a soul-killing bureaucracy and a communist command economy.

But that’s the Cuba that some experts are predicting if Raul Castro, as expected, is elected to replace Fidel Castro, his older brother and orthodox communist, as the island’s president when the legislative National Assembly meets Sunday.

The man who commanded the firing squad executions of hundreds in 1959, who controls the repressive Interior Ministry and who was nearly indicted in Miami on drug charges is now seen as the possible reformer who will lead Cuba into something of a China-styled market communism.

None of these changes is expected overnight – and no one is predicting a turn to democracy – but experts say Castro is likely to tackle some of the nation’s many and profound ills in the coming months.

The average monthly salary stands at about $15, and food prices are high. Farm production is low because the government pays low prices. Government permits are needed but hard to get for everything from selling a car to leaving the country to opening a maximum 12-chair restaurant.

So Castro faces a monumental task.

“He has to start improving economic performance and reducing the misery that the population suffers,” said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on Cuba. “He has to improve the economy, especially for the youth, who are the most unhappy.”

While a wholesale reversal of command economy controls is not expected, “I think he will allow more small private farms and market incentives in agriculture,” added Latell, now with the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.

Castro also may gradually replace top government officials, perhaps appointing a new defense minister – a post he has held for nearly five decades – as well as other aides and younger generals, he added.

Similar assessments came from Francisco Aruca, a Miami Cuban-American radio commentator and travel agent who frequently travels to Cuba and defends accomplishments of the revolution but also criticizes its shortcomings.

Among restrictions Aruca said may be lifted are the exit permits required for travel abroad – even when Cubans have obtained foreign visas – and the permits required to sell cars and homes in Cuba.

Observers also expect a change in leadership style. While Fidel was bombastic and verbose and a disorganized manager, Raul is the opposite – subdued and to the point, at times shy of the public spotlight but always a masterful organizer.

And he steered Cuba successfully through the potentially risky interregnum after Fidel Castro ceded power to him following intestinal surgery in mid-2006. The ailing Castro has made no public appearances since then, turning up only in photos and videos issued by the government.

After the triumph of the Castro revolution in 1959, Raul used Soviet aid to build Cuba’s armed forces into a powerful unit that fought well in Angola, Ethiopia and several other foreign wars. And when the end of Soviet subsidies dramatically weakened the military in the early 1990s, he turned it into an economic powerhouse, running tourist hotels, managing imports and exports that now control an estimated 60 percent of the economy.

One interesting take on Raul Castro’s personality came from Markus Wolf, the legendary spy chief of East Germany, in his 1997 autobiography, “Man Without a Face.”

“Unlike his more emotional colleagues, he took a cool, strategic view of Cuba’s situation,” Wolf wrote.

“He was the only one there who turned up for appointments on time, a trait highly unusual for Cubans. His friends teased him for his punctuality and called him ‘The Prussian.’ “

He can also be cold-hearted – and murderous.

Within days of Fulgencio Batista’s ouster from power in January of 1959, while Fidel enjoyed the adoration of crowds, troops under Raul’s command in eastern Oriente province summarily executed about 100 Batista followers.

Armando Lago, a Cuban exile economist who has made it his life’s work to compile a list of every person killed in the name of the Castro revolution, says that as governor of Oriente province Raul was personally responsible for 550 executions in 1959 alone – about 100 of them without a trial.

It was also Raul who ordered the arrest of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, one of Cuba’s most decorated and popular military officers – apparently on orders from Fidel, who suspected him of disloyalty. Ochoa was executed in 1989 after he was convicted of drug smuggling in a nationally televised trial.

Raul Castro also has been linked to drug smuggling. In 1993, the Miami Herald reported that federal prosecutors in Miami had prepared a draft indictment charging him and 14 other top Cuban officials in a conspiracy to smuggle Colombian cocaine through Cuba to the United States. The indictment was never submitted to a grand jury.

Raul likes to party and enjoys telling and hearing jokes, is friendly to employees and aides and is far better than Fidel at taking care of family matters, Bustamante said. While Fidel missed their mother’s funeral, Raul was the one who consoled the rest of the relatives. He seldom forgets a birthday.

As an adult, Raul acquired the reputation of being a heavy drinker who would go on binges when he had disagreements with Fidel. But a former top aide who defected in the early 1990s said he only knew Raul to suffer from diverticulitis, the same disease believed to have sparked the health crisis that forced Fidel to surrender power in 2006.

Raul was married since early 1959 to Vilma Espin, a former guerrilla, longtime head of the Federation of Cuban Women and often Cuba’s acting first lady at Fidel’s side in official functions. She died in June 2007.

They have four children – Deborah, Mariela, Nilsa and Alejandro – and several grandchildren. Mariela is a well-known gay rights activist who at times seemed to assume the role of family spokeswoman during Castro’s convalescence.


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