Will he be a Castro leader for the next generation?

AUTHOR: Alejandro Castro Espín, son of Raúl Castro, signs a copy of his book, “Imperio del Terror,” during a book fair in Havana in 2009.
AUTHOR: Alejandro Castro Espín, son of Raúl Castro, signs a copy of his book, “Imperio del Terror,” during a book fair in Havana in 2009. EFE

Scores of Castros of several generations populate that enormous Cuban clan. Their wealth and influence are unrivaled and regardless of how the political system evolves after Fidel and Raúl are gone, some descendants are sure to loom as important political players. Raúl’s daughter Mariela, a member of the rubberstamp national assembly and gay rights activist, has been the most obvious example.

But increasingly the leading next-generation contender is Alejandro Castro Espín. Born in 1965, the only son of Raúl Castro and Vilma Espín, his claim to inherited prominence is incomparable. His mother was Cuba’s de facto first lady and head of the women’s federation until her death in 2007. Tough and smart, for a period a communist party politburo member, she formed an enduring alliance with Raúl.

Their son — in contrast to Fidel’s numerous male heirs — has been groomed for leadership roles. An Angola war veteran, Alejandro lost an eye in a non-combat accident in 1986. At the University of Havana he studied engineering but switched to international relations, earning an advanced degree after completing a dissertation and publishing articles. His book, Imperio del Terror, derived from them. It is a brooding, 300-page, anti-American screed that he is said to have researched for about a decade.

A Ministry of Interior colonel, Alejandro has responsibility for coordinating policy between the intelligence and security services and the armed forces. With a thickening résumé as hard-line scholar, itinerant regime spokesman, and close ally of his father, he is expected to be promoted to brigadier general, possibly later this year.

Alejandro’s ascent has been rapid, but only since his father became president in 2008. It was a year later with the publication of his book that he initially gained attention. It catalogues 50 years of what he describes as American terrorism and aggression against Cuba.

In the dedication, for example, he singles out “the 3,478 compatriots who perished and the 2,099 others physically incapacitated as a result of state terrorism practiced against Cuba by American governments.”

Recently issued in a new edition, and translated into several foreign languages, the book has received scant publicity in the official Cuban media. But Alejandro has hawked it aggressively abroad. In Moscow in October 2012 he promoted the Russian translation, and in January made multiple public appearances in Greece, discussing the Greek translation.

In Athens he was interviewed for local television at the foot of the Acropolis. Sounding more like his uncle Fidel than his father, he answered a few questions in endless monologues and with robust self-confidence. In another interview he denied any interest in succeeding his father, while failing, however, to mention Miguel Díaz Canel, the first vice president Raúl has tapped to succeed him in early 2018.

In January Alejandro also traveled, with Raúl, to Costa Rica for a conclave of Latin American and Caribbean leaders, presumably interacting with many of them. A month later he led a Cuban delegation to Moscow where he signed a joint defense agreement.

Alejandro’s ascendancy begs a number of questions, all more relevant now as Cuba and the United States pursue normalized relations. Does his anti-American brief faithfully reflect his father’s thinking? Is the scion being used by Raúl and regime hardliners to help delineate a tough negotiating stance? The aggressive speech Raúl delivered in Costa Rica suggests it may be both.

A former Cuban official now in exile knew the son during his university days. Alejandro was actually “disinterested in politics” then, “a normal, quiet student.” Married in the mid-1980s, he honeymooned in Leningrad around the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power. Like his father, and probably guided by him, he seems to have gravitated in his youth toward Soviet Marxism and Russia.

But is Col. Castro sufficiently talented and versatile to lead Cuba after his father is gone? Would he have the support of key elites, especially in the uniformed services and communist party?

I asked the former official who knew him to comment. He said he does not expect Alejandro to rise much higher in the hierarchy: “to one star general, yes; but not to the politburo.”

In televised appearances in Athens, and an earlier one in Moscow, Alejandro was forceful but scripted. In more than 30 minutes of pontificating at the Acropolis he gave no hints of humor, nuance, wit, or intellectual agility. He was mechanical, parroting propaganda bits he seemed to have memorized. He spoke like a mid-twentieth century Marxist didact.

The son of a now deceased hero of the revolution also knew Alejandro well in Cuba. He has written from exile that “many in the military hate him, others criticize him, and others mock him.” If so, Cuba’s dauphin could have poor prospects once Raúl is unable to protect him from more astute rivals.

Brian Latell is the author of “Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, he is now a senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.