Who Is Raúl Castro?
As a young man, Raúl Castro became interested in politics and joined a socialist youth group. In the late 1950s, he participated in the revolution that brought his brother, Fidel Castro, to power, and soon thereafter was appointed head of the armed forces. In the decades that followed, he also served as Cuba’s defense minister and deputy prime minister. Formally named Fidel's successor in 2008, Raúl implemented a variety of social, economic and political reforms, including the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States, until stepping down from the presidency in 2018.
Raúl Castro was born on June 3, 1931, near Birán, Cuba. The sixth of seven children born to a Spanish landowner and his Cuban wife, Raúl grew up on his father's farm and attended Catholic school with his older brother, Fidel Castro. They were both eventually expelled for bad behavior.
As a young man, Raúl attended college in Santiago and Havana and studied social sciences. Unlike his brother, Raúl proved to be a mediocre student, however, and after leaving school, he went to work in his father's fields. He also joined a socialist youth group and, with Fidel, began to take part in protests and other political activities.
In 1953, Raúl aided Fidel in an attempt to unseat the repressive Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, but the two brothers ended up in prison after a failed attack on a military base. When they were eventually pardoned and released in 1955, they fled to Mexico, where they planned their return to Cuba for the following year, when they would try, once again, to overthrow the Batista regime.
For the next few years, Raúl assisted his brother in many ways, including leading a group of the movement's guerrilla fighters. Finally, in 1959, Batista fled Cuba, and Fidel assumed power. Raúl was soon appointed head of the armed forces and subsequently ordered the execution of 100 of Batista's military officers, among others, earning himself a reputation early on as a hard-line communist.
As Fidel Castro's second in command, Raúl held numerous government posts and played a significant part in the shaping of Cuba's political history. In addition to heading the military, Raúl served as the country's defense minister from 1959 to 2008, during which time he had a key role in the events leading to the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962 he was appointed deputy prime minister and in 1972 he became first deputy prime minister. He also served as first vice president of the council of the state and the council of ministers, and when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to economic fallout in Cuba, Raúl implemented reforms to help the country recover.
It was long assumed that Raúl would eventually succeed Fidel as Cuba's leader. In October 1997, Fidel officially named Raúl his successor, and over the course of the decade that followed, Raúl quietly began to assume more responsibilities. In 2006, Fidel placed Raúl in charge of the Cuban government while he underwent surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding. It was the first time that Fidel had officially ceded power, and it spurred speculation that Fidel's health was in decline. Two years later, in February 2008, Fidel Castro officially resigned as Cuba's leader, and five days later Raúl was chosen by the National Assembly to be the country's new president.
Despite his reputation as a dedicated communist, Raúl Castro went on to implement numerous social, economic and political reforms, including the lifting of restrictions on commerce and travel for its citizens, allowing for the privatization of portions of military and government infrastructure and opening the country to foreign investment. These were part of an ambitious economic initiative that included 300 distinct reforms, many of which seemed to run counter to the economic policies established by Fidel Castro as part of the Cuban Revolution. In 2011, Raúl also instituted a two-term limit for the office of president (each term is five years), and when he was reelected in 2013, he announced his plans to leave politics at the end of his second term.
In December 2013, Raúl Castro and American president Barack Obama were photographed shaking hands following a memorial service for South African president Nelson Mandela, offering evidence that decades of political tensions between the United States and Cuba might be abating. This was confirmed the following December when both Castro and Obama announced that they were working to normalize diplomatic relations, underlining these efforts by exchanging political prisoners.
In July 2015 the Cuban embassy reopened in Washington, D.C., for the first time in 54 years, and the following month an American embassy was reestablished in Havana. Previously, each country only had what was referred to as a “special interest section” in the other country.
It was revealed that the detente between Cuba and the United States had been initiated by Pope Francis, who in the fall of 2014 wrote separate letters to each leader in which he encouraged the presidents to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest.” The Pope then hosted a delegation from each country in a secret meeting at the Vatican in October, paving the way for a restoration of relations.
In September 2015, Castro hosted Pope Francis, the third pope to visit Cuba, for a papal tour named the Mission of Mercy. The visit made headlines for many reasons, not the least of which was the goodwill shared by the president and the pope. Castro even joked that he might even return to church under the pope's influence.
On November 25, 2016, Castro announced on Cuban state television the death of his brother Fidel at the age of 90. He ended his announcement with a revolutionary slogan: "Towards victory, always!"
Stepping down from the Presidency
Despite his many notable achievements, Raúl Castro stressed that he did not want to follow in his brother's footsteps by holding office for decades. During a late 2015 state visit to Mexico, Castro reiterated his intentions to resign in 2018, telling the Mexican president and press, “I will not become the great-grandfather nor the great-grandson because otherwise Cubans would get bored of me.”
Castro followed through with his promise in 2018, stepping aside to allow a National Assembly vote for his hand-picked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel. With Díaz-Canel's April confirmation, Cuban leadership fell outside control of a Castro brother for the first time in nearly 60 years, though Raúl was expected to remain head of the Communist Party for the foreseeable future.
In January 1959, Raúl married Vilma Espín, a woman who was part of the Castros' revolution and acted as a messenger for them when they were exiled in Mexico. Raúl and Vilma were together until her death in 2007, during which time they had three daughters and one son.
Castro has a sharp wit and while he typically avoids the hours-long discourses, both public and private, that characterized his brother's leadership, he does not shy away from elaborating on his political and philosophical views at length, whether in speech or writing. In a 2008 interview with the American actor and activist Sean Penn, Castro joked, “When Fidel finds I have spoken to you for seven hours, he will be sure to give you seven and a half when you return to Cuba."
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