Havana (AFP) – Raul Castro, who steps down Thursday as Cuba’s president, lived most of his life in the shadow of Fidel, his iconic brother. But after taking over in 2006, he steered the island on a path of radical reform as only he could do.
Now 86, his departure brings to a close the Castro brothers’ six-decade grip on power.
A skillful negotiator and as a soldier, relentless in pursuing his enemies, he always knew his place. “Fidel is irreplaceable, unless we all replace him together,” he said on temporarily stepping in when his brother fell ill 12 years ago.
From the shadows, he played a key role in getting the support of the Soviet Union following the revolution’s triumph in 1959, thanks to friendships he made during his travels.
But even before that he snatched a gun off a soldier to rescue his comrades during a botched raid on Moncada barracks in 1953.
And when his brother seized power some six years later, Raul Castro became his second-in-command.
For him, as the youngest of the family’s seven children, it had always been about his big brother Fidel.
When he was just four, Raul asked his mother if he could leave the village to be with nine-year-old Fidel at school in Santiago de Cuba, but she refused.
“He cried, fought, and insisted that she let him go,” recalled Fidel Castro in “My Life: A Spoken Autobiography,” a series of interviews published in 2006.
And it was him who fostered Raul’s love of reading and study.
– ‘The revolution’s institutional architect’ –
“They had a political partnership. Fidel didn’t have that sort of relationship with any of his siblings. Raul became his number two when other revolutionaries (who outranked him) died,” said Cuban political scientist Arturo Lopez Levy.
After ousting dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, as Fidel was busy with his newly-acquired presidential role, Raul set himself to work nurturing two institutional pillars of the revolution: the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), which were central to his plans.
As minister of defense, he headed the FAR for 50 years, transforming a troupe of idealistic rebels into an efficient military force counting 300,000 troops and which went on to play a central role in Cuba’s economy.
“The relationship was one of a leader and his lieutenant. Raul Castro became the one who turned Fidel’s dreams into reality. He was the institutional architect of the revolution,” said Lopez-Levy, co-author of “Raul Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-Up View of Change.”
– ‘Change what must be changed’ –
After years of a US blockade and a harsh economic crisis following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Raul formally took over as president in 2008.
Frugal by nature and less expressive than his brother, he slowly began to change Cuba’s economic model, opening up to foreign investment, private enterprise and the buying and selling of property.
And he also eased the restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad.
At the end of 2014, he stunned the world by reestablishing ties with Washington after a break of more than 50 years.
In 2016, he welcomed President Barack Obama and also facilitated the signing of the landmark peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels.
Later that year he would announce the death of Fidel.
In 2017, he ratified a plan for the continued implementation of Cuba’s economic model “to change everything that needs to be changed” — a catchphrase coined by Fidel to define “revolution.”
With Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House and the renewal of tough rhetoric against Havana, Raul has barricaded himself within the all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba where he will continue to hold a pivotal role, serving as guardian to his successor.
– Fun but implacable –
A family man and father-of-three, Raul was married for 48 years to Vilma Espin, his comrade in arms who died in 2007.
One of his children is lawmaker and gay rights activist Mariela Castro while another is Colonel Alejandro Castro, a major power player. He has nine grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Whether wearing military fatigues or a suit and traditional button-down guayabera shirt, Raul enjoys the absolute loyalty of the military and the former revolutionaries.
Nikolai Leonov, a friend and former head of the KGB’s Cuba department, says the outgoing president is a lover of hiking who is always joking around.
But years earlier, it was him who gave the order to shoot Batista loyalists.
“I couldn’t appear to the enemy as a man with a charitable soul,” he told the Sol de Mexico daily in 1993.
And in 1989, he backed a ruling to put prominent Cuban general Arnaldo Ochoa and three others in front of a firing squad for drug trafficking.
In a shock move in 2009, he ousted two leading figures from the circle of power — Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque — on charges of “ambition” and questionable conduct.
Although he freed dozens of opposition figures under a deal mediated by the Catholic church, arbitrary arrests increased under his watch, along with the prosecution of dissidents for common crimes, opposition leaders say.
Ever looking ahead, he has already prepared the site where he will be buried — a stone alcove on a mountainside near the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba where his beloved wife was laid to rest.