Why Raul Castro Could End Up a Reformer

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ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP / GETTY

Cuban President Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul in 2003

When the Bush Administration began delivering hundreds of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, in 2002, most in Washington expected Cuban President Fidel Castro to go ballistic. He didn't. And according to vetÿÿeran Cuba watchers like former CIA analyst Brian Latell, it was Fidel's younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, who kept the communist dictator's anti-yanqui rants in check. Going further, Raul even assured reporters that if any Guantanamo prisoners escaped, Cuban security forces would capture and return them — a gesture that left much of the international community scratching its head.

Raul Castro has always been known as Fidel's enforcer — the ideologically hard-line, iron-fisted watchdog of his big brother's regime. It's hardly an undeserved rep, one he started building by overseeing the summary execution of scores of soldiers loyal to former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista after Fidel overthrew Batista in 1959. But as Raul, 75, takes control of that government this week — at least, according to an official communiqué, until Fidel recuperates from major surgery to stop intestinal bleeding — Washington may be straining for more signs of his lesser-known side.

Indeed, Raul is also called "the practical Castro," and when and if he does succeed Fidel permanently, many Cuba watchers speculate that he'll actually bring a less confrontational, more reform-minded rule to the communist island. "I think he will try to adopt more of a China economic model, probably continuing much of the harsh political regime but allowing more private enterprise and loosening foreign investment rules," says Latell, a senior researcher at the University of Miami's Cuba Institute and author of the recently published book After Fidel. "And I think he's also going to want better relations and more dialogue with the U.S."

Publicly, Bush Administration officials say that wouldn't be enough to lift Washington's 44-year-old economic embargo against Cuba. They insist that Raul, even if he does open Cuba's threadbare economy, is every bit the unacceptable tyrant Fidel is — someone who promises more of the autocratic status quo than any kind of democratic transition. But privately, some admit they prefer the prospect of a Raul interregnum to the kind of post-Fidel chaos that could result in tens of thousands of Cubans rafting into South Florida — just the sort of diplomatic and logistical crisis that has long spooked U.S. Presidents as much as Fidel Castro himself has. The U.S. also has to worry about a flood of joyous Cuban exiles suddenly heading back to their homeland and potentially exacerbating the chaos there, though the U.S. believes it has a solid Coast Guard plan to prevent that.

The 1996 Helms-Burton law essentially prohibits the U.S. from dealing with Raul if he succeeds Fidel. But some State Department officias confide that if Raul does take reform steps and reaches out to the U.S., it would be the height of folly for Washington to remain on the sidelines, no matter how many votes that might preserve in the politically potent Cuban exile community in South Florida.

In truth, Raul really has little choice but to be practical. He is known to be more down-to-earth and sociable than Fidel — unlike Fidel, he loves to drink, dance and tell ribald jokes — and he has been Fidel's most trusted No. 2 since they were guerrillas fighting in Cuba's eastern Sierra Maestra in the 1950s. But Raul enjoys little if any of the mystical popularity that Fidel still retains, at least among older Cubans, and which has helped keep him in power since his 1959 revolution. That's a big reason why the government in recent months has engineered a p.r. makeover for Raul that included a lengthy article in the official mouthpiece, Granma, highlighting his warm and fuzzy side as a family man and grandfather. But that may not do the trick. To forge a viable connection with Cuba's 11 million beleaguered people, many analysts believe Raul will also have to loosen their leashes more than Fidel ever allowed.

At a military celebration last month, Raul, who became a communist as a youth, well before Fidel, insisted that "only the Communist Party" can rule Cuba and "anything else is pure speculation." But at the same time, Raul may carry more perestroika in his political DNA than Fidel does. When the Soviet Union's lavish economic aid to Cuba disappeared in the early 1990s and many Cubans faced possible starvation, Raul convinced a reluctant Fidel to reopen the island's private agricultural markets as an incentive to increase food production. "Beans are more important than rifles," he insisted. Latell agrees: "It was Raul, not Fidel, who realized that Cuba was going to have to pursue economic reforms to survive" and he put many of his military officers in charge of new enterprises like tourism. In After Fidel, Latell writes that Raul, "unlike his brother, has never been motivated by an ego-charged quest for fame and glory or internationalist gratification. He does not thrive on conflict and confrontation as Fidel has since childhood. He worries more about the economic hardships the Cuban people endures, and is likely to more flexible and compassionate in power."

Other veteran Cuba analysts, not surprisingly, insist that this is too charitable a characterization of a man so long associated with an oppressive military and security apparatus, responsible for imprisoning and in many instances torturing thousands of dissidents. And a number of factors could keep Raul on the hard line even after Fidel dies. For one thing, the largesse of Fidel's left-wing and oil-rich ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has helped significantly to keep Cuba's economy afloat, lessening the urgency of economic reforms that many had expected under Fidel in recent years. (Cuba may also be buoyed by recent discoveries of ample crude reserves off its own coast.) What's more, just beneath Raul sit a number of younger and ideologically purer communist officials, like 40-year-old Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who are known derisively by many Cubans as "los Taliban" and could limit Raul's room to maneuver on any potential reform.

For now, however, the Cuban government insists that Raul's hold of the reins is temporary, perhaps just a few weeks or months until Fidel is back on his feet. In all his 47 years in power, Fidel, who turns 80 on August 13, has never ceded power like this to anyone. And when asked why, if Fidel really is still alive, he would so uncharacteristically let aides make such an important announcement rather than do it himself, reliable official sources in Havana insist that convalescence from his intestinal surgery requires that he do absolutely nothing but lie still in the following days, not even read a communiqué on air.

Even U.S. intelligence officials caution that the jubilation in Miami1s Cuban exile community over Castro's imminent demise is "way too premature," says one. "At this point there's no reason to doubt what the Cubans themselves are saying about his condition." Pentagon and U.S. intelligence officials tell TIME they believe that Castro's operation occurred late last week — perhaps on Thursday or Friday — and that the Cuban government would not have announced the temporary transition arrangement unless it was sure that the dictator would pull through. Castro will have a lengthy convalescing period, these officials believe, during which his brother will have to make decisions and public appearances in his place. "This is a serious dry run of the their succession plan," another U.S. intelligence official says. "And they're looking at how the Cuban people and the international community reacts to Raul in charge." Sources in Cuba, however, dispute that notion and suggest the surgery only took place Monday morning of this week. Either way, even if Fidel should die in the coming days, Raul seems to represent the kind of unchaotic transition in Cuba that both Fidel and, frankly, the nine U.S. Presidents he has tormented since 1959, would prefer. —With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington