(Washington Post) – In the next few days, history will be made in Cuba. For the first time in almost 60 years, a Castro will not rule the island, as Fidel Castro’s 86-year-old brother Raúl steps down as Cuba’s head of state. While Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 inspired predictably polarized reactions across the globe, Raúl Castro’s legacy is harder to place.
In over a decade in the island’s top job, Raúl Castro put Cuba on a path to significant, though piecemeal, economic reform. The “younger” Castro also achieved something his brother never could: restoring diplomatic relations with the United States. But it is through the contradictions of his career that we can better understand his long mark on Cuban history, and the sizable challenges he leaves for his successors.
While he began as rabble-rousing rebel, Raúl Castro eventually helped build a state that depended on more than the charisma of his better-known sibling. Later in life, the once-consummate socialist ideologue showed signs of managerial practicality, dispensing with some anti-market orthodoxies of old. In the end, however, he presided over a government trapped between an enduring instinct to control and intense pressures to evolve.
Raúl Castro got his start as the unpredictable enforcer of Fidel’s guerrilla band in the 1950s. Unlike Fidel or most core rebels, he joined the struggle to unseat U.S.-backed strongman Fulgencio Batista with prior ties to Cuba’s Socialist Youth. This loose political affiliation, and an accompanying pro-Soviet disposition, eventually helped push the Cuban revolution to the left.
Yet late in the war, it was Raúl’s anti-American antics — more than his ideological leanings — that struck a strategic-minded Fidel as too brash. As historian Lillian Guerra relates, in June 1958, Raúl’s troops took hostage close to a dozen foreign employees of U.S.-owned mining companies in eastern Cuba and 24 U.S. Marines on leave from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Covered by visiting tv crews, it was intended as a protest of Washington’s covert support for Batista’s military. Fidel played along publicly, but privately he was not amused, wary of overly antagonizing supporters abroad.
For U.S. observers, such publicity stunts cast Raúl as one of the radicals (along with Che Guevara) in Castro’s inner circle. In a Cold War sense, they were right. It was Raúl, we now know, who made the earliest, secret overture from the incipient revolutionary government to the Soviet Union in April 1959. This was just four months after the rebels had descended victorious from the hills, at the same time that Fidel was in Washington telling the audience of “Meet the Press” that his revolution was “not communist.”
But within a few years Raúl’s pro-Moscow inclinations actually made him a fixture of stability, not tension. When frictions developed between Cuba and the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s over Cuba’s support for revolutionary movements abroad (which the Soviets saw as “adventurism”), the younger Castro argued in favor of preserving the alliance. By contrast, Che Guevara came out as a critic of the socialist bloc’s “tacit complicity with the exploiting countries of the West.”
Raúl’s stewardship of Cuba’s military, which relied on the Soviets for supplies, reinforced this streak of realpolitik. …
By 1989, Cuba had achieved substantial military success under Raúl’s leadership. Most notably, a 14-year campaign in Angola … was winding to a close. But the fall of the Soviet Union soon forced Cuba to open up to Western capital and the very vices that were once seen as the enemy of the Cuban people …
Yet new inequalities emerged. Cubans with access to hard currency from jobs in the tourist sphere did much better than those still dependent on the now highly depressed wages in the much larger public sector.
Such challenges to socialist ethics only intensified after Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006 and Raúl Castro replaced him as head of state two years later. In 2010, Cuba’s new president began rolling out a broader plan to “update Cuba’s social and economic model.” Most notably, the state began laying off half a million workers, while also permitting an expansion of private business.
Cubans rushed to take advantage of the new opportunities. …
But those who did not have access to the funds to start their own restaurants or bed-and-breakfasts felt excluded. Others who saw the government reserving the most lucrative opportunities for itself wondered whether Cuban “socialism” was becoming capitalism by and for the Cuban state.
Then came Barack Obama and Raúl Castro’s decision to begin normalizing relations in 2014. Amid the wave of excitement and U.S. visitors that followed, anxieties simmered among some Cuban government loyalists. …
By the end of 2017, officials long skeptical of Cuba’s incipient market and political evolution had gained the upper hand and put several economic measures on hold. At the same time, Donald Trump’s partial “cancellation of Obama’s bad Cuba deal” erased the bilateral goodwill that might have incentivized further domestic reform.
Still, while socialist hard-liners seem happy to have dodged a liberalizing bullet, the past 10 years may prove a cautionary tale in another way. If there was anyone positioned to cobble together an internal coalition that could set Cuba on a path to steady progress, it may have been Raúl Castro himself. The institutions of the system he helped build — the military and the Communist Party — are not going away. But his successors may not be as able to balance the push and pull of demands across Cuban state and society without prying them further apart.
Regardless, Cuba’s next generation of leaders must grapple with problems he and his brother have left unresolved. How, Cubans still wonder, can their country generate real economic growth without sacrificing a commitment to equality? And why can’t they have a greater say in the decisions taken to pursue those goals? These Cubans reject the supposed choice between socialist solidarity and expanded political participation. Instead, they want both.
Raúl Castro’s rule might one day be remembered as a bridge, something more than the inconclusive summation of contradictions that defined his career. But for that to happen, citizens’ aspirations for greater economic and political opportunity must first be fulfilled.
Bustamante is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.