Cuban revolutionary leader and general Raúl Castro (born 1931) assumed the position of president of Cuba in 2006, following the illness of the country's longtime leader, his brother Fidel Castro. As the leader of Cuba's military during Fidel's long reign, Castro wielded considerable influence over Cuba's development, much of it behind the scenes. He became a well-known figure after ascending to the presidency.
Brothers Raúl and Fidel Castro led the Marxist-inspired revolution that overthrew Cuba's military dictatorship in 1959 and led the establishment of the Republic of Cuba as a Communist state. It was Fidel—charismatic, skilled as an orator, and gifted with natural leadership qualities—who became the island nation's new leader. Raúl was equally important in the country's administration, however; as defense minister from 1959 to 2008, as well as deputy prime minister and first deputy prime minister, he built Cuba's military into an internationally significant fighting force. While committed to Communism, Raúl Castro introduced free-market reforms that proved crucial in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and ended its economic support. Although he negotiated an improvement in Cuba's strained relationship with the United States under U.S. president Barack Obama, Cuba's continued violation of human rights caused sanctions to be reimposed during the subsequent administration of Donald Trump.
Raúl Castro was born on June 3, 1931, the sixth of nine children born into a plantation family in Birán, in eastern Cuba. His father, Angel María Bautista Castro y Argiz, had emigrated from Spain with few resources but by now had accumulated real-estate land holdings. Raúl and older brother Fidel attended school in the city of Santiago de Cuba, and both boys were expelled for disruptive behavior. They were then sent to the prestigious Jesuit-run Belén Preparatory School, then located in Havana but now operating in Miami, Florida. Fidel, who was five years older, excelled here, but Raúl continued to founder academically and returned home to the family plantation. Classmates said that he preferred partying and gambling to attending classes.
When Castro later enrolled in management classes at the University of Havana, he was no more successful academically than before, but his tenure as a student exposed him to new ideas. His conversion to collectivist beliefs occurred slightly earlier than that of his more famous brother: Raúl became an adherent of Marxist socialism during a 1953 visit to Vienna, Austria, where he attended the meeting of a local student group.
After Raúl returned to Havana, he and Fidel began organizing student protests against the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista, a former president of Cuba who had retaken control of the government through a military coup in 1952. These demonstrations evolved to militancy, and in July of 1953 the Castros organized a guerrilla attack on the Cuban military's Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The attack failed, the brothers were arrested, and many of their co-conspirators received ten-year prison sentences. Because Batista was aware that the Castro brothers commanded considerable popular support, they were released after serving 22 months in prison.
Raúl Castro's responsibilities increased during this period. Although he was only 25, he had shown his abilities as a revolutionary leader and in February of 1958 was given the rank of Comandante in the guerrilla army. When the guerrillas split into two parts in order to encircle government forces, he led the group attacking on the eastern front. He also led a key operation in the guerrillas' campaign in 1958: the kidnapping of a group of 34 U.S. and two Canadian citizens on June 26 and 27. Although the kidnapping drew substantial international condemnation, it led to a pause in the fighting that strengthened the guerrillas still more.
Rebel military units, including the one led by Raúl Castro, won major victories during the second half of 1958, and on January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic. Both brothers were at the head of the guerrilla forces that routed government fighters in Santiago de Cuba just before Batista's flight. On January 26, 1959, Raúl took time out from helping to establish the new government to marry Vilma Espín, a chemical engineer as well as a member of the guerrilla force. The couple raised four children, Deborah, Mariela, Nilsa, and Alejandro, and remained together until Vilma's death in 2007.
Raúl was now appointed to the second-highest positions in three key hierarchies: the Council of State, the Council of Ministers, and the Cuban Communist Party. Non-Communist Manuel Urrutia Lleó was initially made president, but Fidel Castro soon succeeded him; fueled by the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, he swung the government in the direction of Marxism. Raúl Castro was named defense minister in October of 1959, holding the position until he assumed the presidency decades later. In his first months in charge of Cuba's defense, he oversaw the identification and punishment of supporters of the Batista regime. Under the court proceedings he developed together with Che Guevara—who went on to oversee their implementation at the La Cabaña Fortress prison—many former regime members were executed by firing squad.
In early 1962, as Cuba's deputy prime minister, Raúl Castro traveled to the Soviet Union to negotiate the placement of Soviet missiles within his country. This negotiation precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis, a major confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, which was then under the administration of President John F. Kennedy. While he became First Deputy Prime Minister in 1971, Castro's ultimate power came as defense minister, because the Cuban military controlled large amounts of state property. Under his leadership, the country's army developed into a fighting force that could assist or stand in for Soviet forces in conflicts in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Even during this period, although he was a committed communist, Castro began to introduce economic reforms, allowing military personnel, for instance, greater autonomy in enterprises they operated.
At a Cuban Communist Party meeting in 1997, Raúl was designated as Fidel Castro's official successor, and he assumed power nine years later, when his older brother underwent abdominal surgery. At first his presidency was provisional: on July 31, 2006, he was appointed Provisional First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. As Fidel's absence lengthened, however, he was given other titles, including head of the Council of State and of the Council of Ministers.
In 2008 Fidel Castro finally stepped down; he would die in November of 2016. When Raúl Castro became the Republic of Cuba's second president, he replaced some of Fidel's longtime advisors but pledged continuity with Communist principles. Observers internationally wondered how the country would change without the charismatic Fidel at the helm, but Raúl confidently took control. In 2011 he assumed his brother's last remaining official position: First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.
As president, Raúl Castro began to introduce certain free-market reforms. He lifted government wage caps that had been in place since 1960 and turned state-owned land over to private farmers and food cooperatives as a way to boost food production. “Many Cubans confuse socialism with freebies and subsidies, and equality with egalitarianism,” he once quipped, as quoted by BBC News. In a move popular with many Cubans, he also relaxed regulations on the personal ownership of computers and cellular telephones. These measures helped mitigate the decline in the Cuban economy that began in 1989, when the USSR was dismantled and support from that communist behemoth dissipated.
To aid the weak economy in Cuba, Castro took steps, in 2014, to open back-channel negotiations with the United States soon after he became president. He negotiated with U.S. president Barack Obama on a series of measures that, while controversial within the United States, improved the cold relations between the two countries. In addition to liberalizing travel restrictions and establishing formal diplomatic relations during this “Cuban Thaw,” Castro hosted a visit from Obama, who in 2016 became the first U.S. president to visit the island since the 1920s. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba remained in place, however, and some of the measures enacted by Obama were reversed by President Donald Trump in 2017.
Although the United States and Cuba still exchanged diplomats, concerns still remained regarding human-rights issues. Beginning with a 2015 state visit to Mexico, Raúl Castro stated that he had no intention of remaining Cuba's president for the rest of his life, and he announced plans to step down from the presidency in 2018.
Palm Beach Post, August 2, 2006, Mike Williams, “Raul's Big Problem: He's Not His Brother,” p. A15.
BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-12700491 (July 18, 2017), “Profile: Raul Castro.”
Belfast Telegraph, http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/world-news/cubas-raul-castro-dismisses-harsher-us-tone-under-trump-35933556.html (July 15, 2017), “Cuba's Raul Castro Dismisses Harsher US Tone under Trump.”
U.S. News & World Report, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2008/02/22/10-things-you-didnt-know-aboutral-castro (February 2, 2008), Jennifer L. O'Shea, “10 Things You Didn't Know about Raul Castro.”□