One of the world’s more reclusive leaders, Raúl Castro, has recently made two extraordinary public appearances that together begin to etch a portrait of a man long eclipsed by his flamboyant older brother, Fidel.
In contrast to the highly sociable and famously loquacious Fidel, Raúl has been nearly invisible since assuming the Cuban presidency in 2008. The 83-year old delivers the minimum number of required official speeches, eschews press conferences, and rarely grants interviews or receives foreign visitors other than heads of state.
Loyal Cuban officials explain that Raúl doesn’t want to inflate his own importance; alternatively, that he is too busy overseeing his policy reforms to take time out for public relations. Or somewhat more credibly, that he wants to distinguish himself from Fidel by talking less and accomplishing more.
Perhaps Raúl fears comparison with his charismatic brother, and is more comfortable in small-group meetings, or reviewing troops—which he did regularly as a self-described “discreet” minister of defense for over five decades.
But this April 11 in Panama City, Raúl seized center stage at the VII Summit of the Americas. He began his extended remarks with a joke: as he had been excluded from the previous six summits where each leaders is typically allocated 8 minutes, he calculated that he was owed seven times eight or 56 minutes for his remarks. Having cleverly gained the audience’s sympathy, he launched into a detailed denunciation of U.S. imperialism coupled with a spirited defense of the Cuban Revolution, even momentarily choking up as he proudly declared himself a revolutionary to the core of his being.
Suddenly, Raúl shifted and turned dramatically toward President Barack Obama, who was seated just three chairs away. Looking up from his prepared text, the Cuban president shared that he had carefully pondered what he was about to say: He, Raúl Castro, “apologized to President Obama,” whom he absolved from the sins of his predecessors. He had read Obama’s memoirs—not every page but still—and he was persuaded that the U.S. president was a man of his word, a man who had remained true to his humble origins.
After over 50 years of relentless hostilities between the two nations, the proud, unrepentant Cuban leader, himself a four-star general, deemed the sitting U.S. commander-in-chief to be an honest and authentic human being.
Then just a month later, on May 10, Raúl, the self-declared atheist, met Pope Francis in the Vatican, to prepare for the Pontiff’s upcoming visit to Cuba in September. Following their private meeting, the Cuban gushed: “I read all the speeches of the Pope, his commentaries, and if the Pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the Church—I’m not joking.” Moreover, he would attend all of the Pope’s Masses in Cuba—an act of humility unimaginable by Fidel.
The parallels between Raúl’s assessments of President Obama and Pope Francis are striking. In both instances, the Cuban leader apparently arrived remarkably well prepared, having extensively reviewed the writings of his interlocutors.
In both cases, Raúl evaluated these men based upon their moral characters. Were they honest men with a progressive social consciousness and personal integrity, were they men who could be trusted by Cuba? Yes, he had concluded, both the Pope and the President were worthy of respect and even admiration.
And in both cases, Raúl demonstrated a decisiveness of judgement and calculation. Raúl was placing a big bet that Obama would not suddenly cave in to hardline domestic political pressures and reverse course, as so many other U.S. presidents had done in the past. This is a gamble that Fidel, ever distrustful of the vagaries of U.S. politics, would likely not have wagered.
Raúl’s enthusiasm for Pope Francis was most probably born of the Pope’s preaching on social justice and, as an Argentine, his affinity for Latin America. Nevertheless, the public endorsement was also a gamble: that, once in Havana, Francis would not openly confront the regime, rather that he will urge gradual, peaceful change and national reconciliation.
Together, in Panama and in Rome, we glimpsed a well-prepared and vigorous Cuban leader (In Panama, where much younger heads of state occasionally nodded off, Raúl remained alert and attentive). We witnessed a leader who makes clear-cut judgements of character and, based upon those assessments, possesses the supreme confidence to make weighty policy decisions. We also have seen a calculated boldness and risk-taking that one might not expect of an octogenarian.
Finally, Raúl has emerged from the shadows of his bigger, older brother. He appears fully in charge, competent, energetic, and forward-looking. Today, we know a great deal more about the president of Cuba than we did just a short while ago.
Richard E. Feinberg is professor at the University of California, San Diego, (non-resident) Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and most recently, author of Soft Landing in Cuba? Emerging Entrepreneurs and Middle Classes.