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Emerging From the Shadow of an Icon

Raul Castro is known chiefly as his brother's uncharismatic lifelong lieutenant. But he has amassed a long record of decisive leadership.

August 02, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — A lifelong understudy, Raul Castro takes center stage in Cuba as a man defined more by his contrasts with his iconic older brother than by his own performance: methodical where Fidel Castro is impulsive, awkward in public where Fidel shines in the spotlight, approachable where Fidel has intimidated.

Chroniclers of the Cuban revolution paint a portrait of the acting president as a man at once compassionate and ruthless, more sensitive and family-oriented than Fidel, yet adept in the role of executioner, at least in the early, violent days of their revolution half a century ago.

Historians also note that, unlike his brother, the 75-year-old Raul has moderated and moved with the times, embracing modest economic reforms that his brother rejected.

In his 2005 biography of the Castro brothers, "After Fidel," former CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell describes the younger Castro as so overshadowed as to be often underestimated.

It was Raul Castro who steered Cuba down the path of Marxism-Leninism, he points out, drawn into the Stalinist fold during a 1953 socialist youth conference in Vienna.

It was also the younger Castro who first met Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the charismatic Argentine doctor-cum-leftist radical who was often to supplant Raul as the revolution's No. 2 until Guevara's death in 1967 fighting a doomed rebel cause in Bolivia.

And it was the heir apparent who negotiated lucrative and strategic support from Moscow, including his July 1962 Kremlin visit that secured a Soviet promise to deploy medium-range missiles to the island, a move that brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflagration three months later.

As defense minister, Raul Castro built a formidable army that defeated U.S. forays, including the bungled 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the airspace intrusions of radical exiles in the late 1990s.

The strongest institution in the country, the Cuban military has never suffered an internal upheaval or engendered a coup attempt. Only one senior officer has ever defected.

Raul Castro's staunch Marxist beliefs and fierce anti-American rhetoric have softened in the years since the Soviet Union's demise and the devastating cutoff of oil and subsidies from Cuba's erstwhile communist benefactors.

Compelled to self-sufficiency during the withering "Special Period in Peacetime," as the harsh years of the early 1990s were known, he deployed his forces to foreign-financed joint ventures that kept the country fed and brought in hard-currency investment. Today, the Cuban military is responsible for two-thirds of the country's convertible revenue.

The younger Castro has been openly admiring of the "Chinese model," under which a strong autocracy remains in control while permitting some private enterprise.

Some who have met the bespectacled man describe him as markedly different from a sibling who has been the embodiment of the revolution.

"My sense is that Raul knows he lacks the popular support of Fidel and has gone about cultivating a new generation of leadership to whom he would quickly turn over control" if and when he becomes permanent head of state, said Glenn Baker, director of the U.S.-Cuba Cooperative Security Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Baker, who met with both Castros during a 2003 Havana visit, said Raul was "as jovial and personal as his older brother was imperial and humorless."

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who met the Castro brothers four years ago, said he found Raul "much more grounded" than his brother, who dominated their several hours of conversation.

"Raul struck me as rational, calmer. He's a tough thug with a sense of humor," McCaffrey recalled.

Raul Castro Ruz was born June 3, 1931, in the remote village of Biran in the "Wild East" of what was then Oriente province. He was the sixth of nine children eventually acknowledged by Angel Castro. His mother was Lina Ruz, a servant whom the Spanish emigre took up with while married to the mother of his first two children.

Fidel Castro's legions of biographers have often paid notice to "rumors too consistent to be ignored" that Raul was fathered by someone other than Angel Castro. The most persistent of the stories held that his father was a Rural Guard captain named Felipe Mirabal who was posted near the Castro homestead in the early 1930s.

Leycester Coltman's 2003 book, "The Real Fidel Castro," recounted how Mirabal was rounded up and condemned to death along with other officers of deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista's army after the 1959 triumph of the revolution but was never executed. Mirabal intimated to others in prison that the reports of his relation to Raul Castro were true, the biographer wrote.

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