Ivan Garcia, 9 January 2017 — Jumping from a conversation about football one about Cuban domestic politics is not exactly an exercise in rational balance. That is why Eduardo, a veterinarian in a cooperative outside Havana, responded with a prolonged silence when the street debate took an unexpected turn.
The group was chatting in a corner in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood about Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid, when Carlos, a friend of Eduardo’s, started a monologue about how difficult it is in Cuba to be able to have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then the subject of daily hardships stole the rostrum.
César, a bank employee, says: “The hardships start with low wages and lack of food, followed by a lack of housing and transport problems. The list is longer. Every day it becomes harder to live here.”
On the street, the tirades against Raúl Castro are often bitter and even offensive. His brother, the late populist caudillo, continues to arouse some respect among Cubans, be they apolitical or detractors of the Castro regime.
But Raul, handpicked by Fidel after he stepped aside on 31 July 2006 due to health problems, does not inspire the same consideration among ordinary people. Without restrictions, not a few Habaneros, mostly marginal, call him ‘Raula’ — the feminine version of his name — question his manhood and tell jokes about his sexuality.
There is a popular perception that Raúl is more repressive than his brother. “If he has to bring the tanks out on the street so that this shit does not fall, he’ll do it without thinking twice about it,” says a newspaper salesman.
Those who ever had dealings with Raúl Castro, such as the writer Juan Juan Almeida and the former state television journalist Lissette Bustamante, had a chance to experience little-known facets of the current president: that of a father and a grandfather who worships his children and grandchildren, an organized man who knows how to listen.
Nikolai Leonov, an old fox of the KGB who met the General in the ’50s when he was a simple Socialist Youth activist, in a report to the Soviet intelligence portrayed him full-length: an eternal conspirator.
With discretion, Raul Castro, has participated all the witch hunts and purges that have occurred in these 59 years of revolution. From the execution of the pilots of the Batista air force and the microfaction process to the Ochoa case and the dismissal of Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque.
“Raúl is more communist than his brother. Fidel only believed in him. If he wants, Raul can be cruel, but he has his feet on the ground,” says a person who knew him when he was a minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).
Despite his repulsive reputation and without much political talent, in his eleven years at the helm of Cuba’s destiny, he authorized broader economic reforms than in the Castro I phase and repealed absurd regulations that made Cubans third-rate citizens in their own country, such as the legalization of the purchase and sale of cars and houses, travel abroad and being about to stay in exclusive hotels formerly open only to foreign tourists.
Although he has maintained the repression against the dissidence on the island and Cuban interference in Venezuela, Castro II negotiated Cuba’s financial debt with various countries on favorable terms and managed to reestablish diplomatic relations with the United States without giving an inch in his obsolete political principles.
According to credible sources, Raúl Castro’s decision to withdraw from power is unappealable. But as long as he lives, he will remain the first secretary of the Communist Party and, from the shadows, will play an important role in the sewers of power. “That’s what he likes. Manipulating the strings of power, from behind the power, ” says a former official.
The postponement of his retirement does not seem to be a delaying move. Some analysts believe that the current state of affairs, crisis in Venezuela, setbacks in relations with the United States and an economy on the razor’s edge, could have influenced Raúl to reconsider his decision to retire in February 2018.
The former official believes that “there has been more noise outside than inside. I think that this postponement is due to the fact that the elections of the municipal candidates were delayed due to Hurricane Irma. The deadlines that remain until February are very narrow to be able to elect the new deputies. I do not think it’s Raúl’s move to stay as president for two more months.”
Daniel, a barber, does not care when Raúl is going to retire or who will replace him. “We will keep the same style of government that has never worked. The Cubans will continue going through hell to get food. What interests me, and I suppose the people also, is that there are changes that really improve our lives, not the happy talk story they’ve been feeding us for 59 years. ”
What should be of interest to scholars of Cuba is the lack of charisma and meager qualities of the new batch of politicians in the country. Almost everyone feels uncomfortable before the cameras. Their speeches are mechanistic and trite. They make up for their poor creativity by cutting and pasting phrases from speeches delivered by Fidel Castro.
They never smile in their appearances. They are always serious, as if in a bad mood and their pathetic expression screams for an image consultant. But what most concerns citizens is that they have no idea how a nation is managed efficiently.
The great problem of Cuba is not Raúl Castro. It is what comes after.