I’m trying to decipher Raúl Castro’s perceptions 60 years to the day after the attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago, the event that signaled the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.
That was the episode that placed both brothers on the Cuban political map and the front pages of all the newspapers. At that moment, Raúl Castro, a youth barely 22, was, both emotionally and intellectually, just an appendage of his brother, Fidel — the dominant figure.
The process of codependence had begun a lot earlier, during Raúl’s teenage years. His parents, who lived at the other end of the country, aware that he was an awful student, entrusted Fidel to “straighten him up.”
Instead, Fidel used him. He turned Raúl into his deputy, brought him into his underworld of pistol-packing violence and recruited him to conquer first Cuba, then Africa, later the galaxy. There was a reason why Fidel, at age 18, had legally substituted his middle name. He dropped “Hipólito” and became “Alejandro.”
The result was that Raúl, that affectionate and familiarly warm young man described by his sister Juanita and who as a child dreamed about becoming a radio announcer, turned into two unexpected beings under Fidel’s influence. He became an efficient butcher, a lot better organized than his brother, and an apprentice communist.
It is likely that Raúl Castro’s early association with the Communist Party was a mission assigned to him by Fidel. Raúl did not have his own autonomy to consider a political decision of that nature, especially when Fidel was already planning to attack the Moncada barracks.
Fidel’s heart leaned to the minuscule Popular Socialist Party, the party of the communists, but his brain and unscrupulous pragmatism told him that he should remain allied to the Orthodox Party, a major party that was vaguely social-democratic and had a real chance to achieve power. The way to solve that dilemma, then, was to install Raúl in the PSP, while he formally remained in “the orthodoxy.”
In early 1953, Raúl, sent by the PSP with his brother’s blessing, traveled to a “youth festival” in Vienna. In fact, it was a political fair organized by Moscow to recruit its future cadres. During that trip, Raúl first established relations with the KGB, in the person of agent Sergei Leonov.
Fidel — boss, teacher, paternal figure — provided his brother with the fire, the adrenaline and a simple explanation of political reality. Leonov placed before his eyes the bright future of humanity: the glorious Soviet Union. Raúl bit both hooks.
Now Raúl had everything: the mission, the method, the vision, the model. When Fidel appointed him minister of defense so he could be his brother’s bodyguard, Raúl covered the walls with the revered portraits of Soviet marshals and generals.
Sixty years have passed. Raúl today is a disillusioned old man, his innards rotted by whiskey. During his long life, he learned many lessons, all of them disappointing. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Neither does Marxism. Everything was an absurd blunder.
Now he understands that his brother was a good political operator and a shrewd warrior but also a disastrous leader, childishly obsessed with inexhaustible dairy cows and prodigious vegetables. An irresponsible fellow who steered that poor country into an interminable succession of wars, conspiracies and arbitrariness.
To Fidel, a good narcissist, the function of every human being is to serve him on his road to glory. That’s exactly what he did with Raúl: He shoved him into the PSP, dragged him to Moncada, led him to the Sierra Maestra, made him comandante, minister, general and then assigned him the presidency. Fidel manufactured Raúl’s life. An important life, but not his own.
It is true that, without his brother’s magic wand, Raúl might have been an insignificant man, but Fidel pushed him to the summit because he needed a lieutenant who would be absolutely faithful to him, even as he thought that his “little brother” was a woefully limited minor figure. That suspicion (or certainty) has never ceased to hurt the current president.
Sixty years after Moncada and at the age of 82, Raúl is painfully aware of the total disaster he helped to provoke in his country. He has finally understood his brother’s true dimension. He is cognizant of the failure of communism, although he knows that his life won’t be long enough to rectify the course.
Simply put, the damage is too deep. Raúl holds on to power but has helped to turn the country into a festering dump. I suspect he will die hugely ashamed of what he has done and, above all, of what he doesn’t dare do.