February 2, 1998

Castro's Brother Takes Bigger Role in Cuba

February 2, 1998
The New York Times.

HAVANA—Three months after his older brother Fidel formally named him as his eventual successor, Raul Castro appears to be assuming a wider range of official duties and playing a more prominent role in the running of the Cuban government and the Communist Party, Cuban officials and foreign diplomats say.

A military colleague of the younger Castro was recently put in charge of a major ministry, and other allies have been named to the streamlined Communist Party Central Committee and its Politburo.

Those and other recent developments suggest, a diplomat here said, "that Fidel has finally begun to prepare for the day when he will no longer be on stage."

Another diplomat said: "Above all, Fidel wants continuity and an orderly transition. He is certainly not ready to abandon power any time soon, but he wants to be sure the house is in order when that day comes, and he thinks the best way to do that is to gradually expand Raul's responsibilities."

Though never discussed in Cuba's state-controlled press except to accuse Cuba's enemies of fomenting disinformation, the question of Fidel Castro's health and succession has become a subject of much speculation here.

The Cuban leader has appeared thinner and grayer in public appearances over the last year, including during the recent visit of Pope John Paul II, and his speech is slower.

At 66, Raul Castro is five years younger than Fidel. There is also a third brother, Ramon, the eldest, who, though he won a legislative seat in elections last month, is not a significant factor in party or government affairs.

Raul Castro has been his brother's most trusted confidant and second in command since the two came to power in 1959; he currently occupies the key posts of defense minister and deputy general secretary of the Communist Party. But it was not until the party congress held in October that Fidel Castro formally designated Raul as his successor as Communist Party leader.

Fidel Castro is also president of the country and commander in chief of the armed forces, and it is assumed that Raul would inherit those positions as well.

"We have to guarantee the revolution," Fidel Castro said in his closing speech to more than 1,500 party delegates.

In addition, the Cuban leader referred to his younger brother as his "relevo." The term has a primarily military meaning, that of a new commander, but is also applied in baseball to describe a relief pitcher.

"Raul has more youth and more energy than me," the Cuban leader said. "He has more time ahead of him."

Since the October congress, Raul Castro has taken on a role that is more visible and more varied.

In November, he embarked on his first publicly acknowledged trip abroad of this decade, making a two-week tour of China to acquaint himself with economic changes there and, with details of the pope's visit to Cuba then being worked out, stopping in Rome on his way back to meet with Vatican officials and to tour the Sistine Chapel.

Certain other officials close to Fidel Castro have also seen their roles gradually expand in recent times. The economy czar, Carlos Lage, for instance, now supervises much of the day-to-day administration of government.

But to the United States, any government that Raul Castro might head is merely an extension of the current one-party state. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which widened U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba, specifically states that the embargo, now 37 years old, will be rescinded only when "a transition government in Cuba is in power," one that "does not include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro."

At a news conference here last week, Michael Ranneberger, director of the State Department's office of Cuban affairs, minimized the importance of Raul Castro's enhanced role and discounted the prospect of any shift of policy if he should take power. "The Cubans have made clear for some time that that was the plan," he said.

But Latin American and European diplomats here say they detect certain subtle differences of approach and attitude between the two brothers. Raul, they maintain, is more pragmatic than Fidel on economic issues, but perhaps even more dogmatic on ideological questions.

Even as young men, the diplomats point out, Raul Castro was drawn earlier and with more conviction to the leaders and principles of the Communist Party. And more recently, at a special party meeting called in March 1996, Raul denounced as "fifth columnists" a group of reformers working at several party-sponsored research institutes, who were then purged.

But Raul Castro is also said to have pushed for economic reforms in 1993, when the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the communist bloc and the loss of Soviet subsidies threatened to bring Cuba to its knees. A result was the creation of private farmers' markets and an increase in food production.

At the October party congress, the military, which remains the foundation of Raul Castro's power and prestige, was singled out for praise for its efforts to increase efficiency.

Then, in late November, the military chief of staff, Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, was made head of the Ministry of Sugar in what was seen as an effort to increase production after a series of bad harvests in the industry most vital to the Cuban economy.

But Raul Castro lacks his brother's charisma and diplomatic skill, and has not been immune from implied criticism.

In December, Raul Valdes Vivo, the head of the party's school for cadres, published a scathing criticism of suggested economic reforms in the party newspaper Granma, arguing that letting Cubans invest in businesses "would introduce a social force that sooner or later would serve the counterrevolution."

Valdes Vivo described investors as nothing more than "piranhas," and warned that they were "capable in a minimum time of devouring a horse down to its bones." Here in Cuba, one of Fidel Castro's nicknames is El Caballo, which means "the horse."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


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