The Legacy of Raúl Castro

Throughout his career, two misleading stereotypes distorted our view of Raúl Castro. He was neither a pale shadow of his brother, nor a one-dimensional pro-Soviet ideologue, but a major historical figure who played a key role in shaping the Cuban system and then reforming it.

Raúl Castro attends the traditional May Day parade on Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, 1978. (Francois Lochon / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

On April 19, 2021, the Cuban Communist Party’s Eighth Congress finally brought an end to the political era of the Castros by electing Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, national president since 2018, as the party’s new first secretary. This move followed Raúl Castro’s confirmation on April 16 that he would stand down after two successive terms, as he had promised back in 2011.

While it came as no surprise that Raúl followed through on this pledge, having already done the same with the Cuban presidency in 2018, his departure nonetheless had symbolic importance, ending the “historic generation” of former guerrilla rebels in positions of authority. So at this moment of transition, what should we make of Raúl’s years in power, and of his overall importance in the trajectory and shape of the Cuban Revolution from 1959 onward?

Dynastic Legends

The reactions of the world media to the party’s changeover were predictable, mostly dismissing Raúl as Fidel’s younger brother and shadow, and seeing his leadership within the misleading framework of a North Korea–style Castro dynasty. Indeed, by 2008, when the National Assembly elected Raúl as president, the “dynasty” notion was just the latest in a long line of stereotypes that had accumulated from the early 1960s onward about the Cuban Revolution and its leadership.

Those stereotypes tended then to see the revolution either as a popular seizure of power by a supposedly typical, charismatic Latin American caudillo — beginning five decades of obsessive focus on the person of Fidel — or as an equally typical communist Soviet satellite wedded to Marxism-Leninism. Both sets of assumptions reemerged in the 2006–8 period, when Fidel became ill and “handed over” power to his brother, and again in April 2021.

Those who made those early assumptions did not realize that the revolution as a process had begun in 1959, ending the previous rebellion against the rule of Fulgencio Batista. It was a widely popular drive to start a process of nation-building for a state which, after enduring Spanish colonial rule for some eighty years longer than the rest of Spanish America, then became a formal neocolony of the United States.

The United States made formal Cuban independence in 1902 conditional on the inclusion in the Cuban Constitution of the Platt Amendment, which restricted their sovereignty as a nation-state for at least thirty years. Washington then oversaw a further twenty-five years of economic and political hegemony. In 1959, nation-building was therefore still something to be achieved, and most Cubans knew that — the rebels certainly did. The only question was “how?”

Ultimately, the answer came from Cuba’s own traditions of radical dissidence — as seen in the fusion of nationalism and socialism that could be found in the country’s neglected 1940 Constitution — and the prevailing discourse of anti-colonialism in the decolonizing world: namely, through some form of socialism. However, that still left the matter of what kind of socialism it should be.

Raúl’s Emergence

That was where Raúl Castro came into the picture, as one of the key figures in the Cuban leadership’s adoption of a socialist model close to the Soviet approach. This was a role that partly gave rise to the stereotypes about him.

In 1958, before the 26th of July Movement rebels had gained victory, Raúl was relatively unknown in Cuba. Although he followed his brother’s academic path to Havana University Law School, his political path differed. As a student activist in 1952–53, he gravitated toward the communist Popular Socialist Party (PSP). He joined the Cuban delegation traveling to a 1953 Moscow-organized Youth Congress in Eastern Europe, and the PSP’s youth wing, Socialist Youth (JS).

On his return to Cuba, Fidel told Raúl of the imminent plan to attack Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada garrison on July 26, 1953. The people who had hatched the plan were a small group belonging to the left-nationalist Ortodoxo Party — formally known as the Cuban People’s Party. Batista’s coup in March 1952 had denied the party its widely expected victory in the elections due to be held that June, with Fidel as one of its congressional candidates.

In spite of the Ortodoxo origins of this project, Raúl immediately agreed to join in. This was a stance that soon distanced him from the PSP, who would roundly condemn the Moncada attack. The PSP also condemned the December 1956 expedition launched by Fidel from Mexico and the ensuing guerrilla campaign, until internal pressure obliged the party to accept the inevitable and join the rebel alliance by the middle of 1958.

Raúl left the JS soon after Moncada. Held in the Isle of Pines prison until June 1955, he became politicized with the other rebels. He accompanied them to Mexico upon their release to prepare for the launch of a guerrilla rebellion.

That PSP link attracted the attention of the US embassy’s intelligence section in 1956. Trying to guess the shape of a future Cuba under the 26th of July Movement, they searched for the red under the bed in characteristic Cold War fashion.

Along with Che Guevara — about whose unconventional interpretations of Marxism they knew nothing — they identified Raúl as the most likely candidate for this role. Henceforth, he became their statutory red, a pro-Soviet “hardened ideologue.” This definition strangely contradicted the narrative of Fidel’s total domination by depicting Raúl as the evil genius who was said to be plotting a shift to bring Cuba under Soviet control.

By then, however, a different Raúl was emerging. Although he had only been a foot soldier in the Moncada attack, he rose up the rebel ranks as his qualities became clear and his importance grew. It was he who introduced Che Guevara to the group in Mexico, thereby setting up the close and enduring ideological comradeship between Fidel and Che.

In training, Raúl proved to be a leader and skilled trainee, earning him a captaincy in the eventual expedition on the Granma yacht. After Batista’s troops bloodily dispersed the rebel force three days after landing, he led a small batch of survivors to join up with Fidel’s equally diminutive group. Together with Che’s men, they created the basis of the Rebel Army in the eastern Sierra Maestra.

By mid-1958, his leadership, political nous, and military skills had won him the command of a separate guerrilla front in the nearby Sierra del Cristal. In that capacity, he showed the same leadership abilities, but also an administrative efficiency that would be evident in later years.

More importantly, although he had broken with the PSP, his Marxism — already more profound than that of his brother — gave him a clear sense that those under his command needed to receive political education. He also saw the importance of collaboration with local PSP cadres.

Institutionalizing the Revolution

That willingness to collaborate continued after January 1959. The PSP now offered the unconditional support of its members — estimates of which range from six to ten thousand — and became part of the emerging tripartite rebel alliance. This generated alarm and resentment in the 26th of July Movement, but Raúl and Che saw the value of the PSP’s inclusion and of closer links with the Soviet Union. That inevitably reinforced assumptions about Raúl as a committed ideologue.

By 1960, those assumptions had grown stronger, as Raúl, one of the Cuban revolution’s three main leaders, received command and ministerial control over the new Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). In fact, his FAR role did make him central to much of the whole process, defending the revolution against external threat. That role also partly fueled his enthusiasm for links with Moscow, through a developing relationship with the Soviet military. However, his preferred strategy for defending Cuba, through a guerrilla-style “war of all the people,” differed from their recommendations.

There was also another dimension to Raúl’s admiration of the USSR, already glimpsed in the Sierra: his belief in effective organization and economic stability. Like many others, Raúl perceived both to be present in the USSR, overriding any doubts that he may have harbored about a lack of accountability in Soviet structures. His belief in the need for an effective, accountable, and internally democratic single party remained consistent throughout the decades, reflecting his preference for material incentives (rather than the moral ones stressed by Che), constant accountability, and effective debate.

That preference made him welcome the less frenetic and less exciting period of “institutionalization” that unfolded in Cuba from 1975. During this period, often misleadingly referred to as one of “Sovietization,” Soviet-style structures replaced mobilization and the Cuban leadership declared that their country’s revolution was engaged in a transition to socialism, rather than the goal of achieving communism rapidly set out by Che in the 1960s.

Raúl welcomed the prospect of greater stability and a closer relationship with Moscow — Cuban-Soviet relations had soured damagingly from the time of the missile crisis in October 1962, reaching a nadir by 1968. He also welcomed the idea of a Cuban Communist Party which met in congress on the scheduled five-year cycle: while the party’s first congress, originally due to be held in 1970, was delayed for another five years, the second began on time in 1980.

However, it would be wrong to see any major political or ideological differences between Fidel and Raúl. Both believed in the same project, the one they had conceived in 1953 and shaped more concretely between 1956 and 1959: nation-building through socialism. They differed only in their preferences over the means of arriving at socialism and the speed of that process.

Fidel agreed much more with Che’s notion of the subjective conditions for socialism —ideological commitment and conciencia under the leadership of a committed vanguard — that could overcome the objective barriers. The former PSP and the Soviet leaders argued that socialism was impossible in Cuba, let alone communism, because of those objective hurdles.

Although he did not fully agree with the PSP and Moscow, Raúl always favored a more measured drive toward socialism, with structured accountability and appropriate — but limited — material rewards, but always with a clearly socialist and moral ethos behind everything. Fidel’s approach dictated a reliance on mobilization and “passion,” while Raúl’s emphasized structure and pragmatic feasibility, yet they worked in tandem. Both saw the goal as the process of nation-building that Cuba still lacked in 1959.

Updating the System

That was still Raúl’s goal when, in 2008, he reassured doubters that his reform proposals would not make him Cuba’s Mikhail Gorbachev. He had not been elected, he said, in order to “destroy the Revolution,” as some feared, but as someone who was necessarily “updating” Cuban socialism to fit a new world, ensuring its survival.

Cuba’s 2019 Constitution would later describe this as a process “in transition to socialism.” As such, it could and should be achieved by means of properly functioning structures with full internal accountability and communication, not through a party which people joined for self-advancement, as Raúl had observed in the pre-1989 Soviet-led socialist bloc. As moralistic as Fidel, he abhorred corruption as something that undermined a socialist consciousness.

From 1986 onward, Cuba had adopted a strategy known as “Rectification” (“of past errors and negative tendencies”). Raúl’s leading role in that strategy made nonsense of the common oversimplification that it constituted a return to the 1960s. While Gorbachev’s rise to power in the USSR had many implications for Cuba, Raúl’s focus was on the underlying message for the Cuban economy: the beneficial relationship with the USSR was going to end, and Cubans needed to prepare for that by economic streamlining.

The collapse of the USSR and the socialist bloc in 1989–91 overtook that process of streamlining, unleashing the revolution’s deepest crisis, at which point Raúl came to the fore. Belying his image as a rigid, hard-line ideologue, he led the urgent drive for unprecedented reforms to “save the revolution.” He showed himself to be a patient but determined negotiator, who took care to bring along with him those in the leadership who were dubious about the scope of the reforms. The recovery of the Cuban economy thus owed a great deal to the presence of his hand on the tiller, as he ended rigid centralization and restored the private self-employment abolished in 1968.

Events in the 2006–8 period, when Raúl was elected to succeed Fidel, encouraged the notion of a Castro “dynasty” among outside observers. Many of those who cherished this idea forgot that Raúl owed his title as senior vice president, not to any family relationship with the Comandante, but to his status as the only one of the original three leaders left standing alongside Fidel. He therefore enjoyed a historical legitimacy which had already given him sufficient authority to take effective control by mid-2007, in view of Fidel’s chronic health condition.

He used the same legitimacy to launch the fiercest and most wide-ranging critique of the revolution that had been heard inside Cuba on July 26, in a way that many found shocking, and to decree the opening of a prolonged and public national debate, via the Mass Organizations and the Party, in order to take that critique further. It was a brilliant strategy, using the feedback of those who broadly welcomed his critique and proposals as ammunition to challenge the anticipated resistance of the party hierarchy.

Although that resistance lasted for three years, by 2011, Raúl had forced the party to convene its long overdue Sixth Congress — meant to have been held back in 2002 — albeit with compromises. Elected as first secretary, he now had full authority to reform, sin prisa pero sin pausa (without haste, but also without pause).

New Directions

What followed appeared to transform Cuba. There was a surprise announcement of full US recognition in 2014–15, although the embargo remained firmly in place, enforced by the US Treasury. The reforms Raúl had begun in 1992–93 pushed even further in areas such as self-employment and travel freedoms.

In the meantime, however, two other things had changed. Firstly, it was clear by 2006 that the Cuban leadership had quietly downscaled the “Battle of Ideas” that Fidel launched six years earlier, aiming to reinvigorate Cuba’s youth ideologically through culture, education, and mobilization. This reflected Raúl’s preference for productive stability over expensive “passion.”

Secondly, there had been shifts inside the ruling party. Before he became leader, Raúl had already begun a process of renewal at provincial level, bringing in younger leaders. After 2008, he carried on this work in government, phasing out the historic generation and strengthening the authority of the National Assembly.

On fulfilling his promise to retire as Cuba’s president after two terms, Raúl used his remaining three years as party leader to continue the renewal effort, steadily distancing the party from active involvement in government, while clarifying its role as a source of ideological guidance. In 2019, Díaz-Canel asked him to lead the commission for Cuba’s new constitution. Raúl knew that this updated charter was needed in order to legitimize the emerging Cuba and update its structures of legality.

The document bore Raúl’s stamp. It retained many aspects of the revolution’s first constitution from 1976, which had appeared to follow Soviet models, but subtly changed its ideological definitions. In place of the commitment to Marxism-Leninism — always a shorthand for Soviet-style communism — there were unhyphenated references to “Marxism, Leninism” as sources of political inspiration, along with the ideas of José Martí and Fidel Castro.

The 2019 Constitution also began to put in place a separation of powers, reflecting Raúl’s known doubts about the concentration of power before 2008. It shared responsibility for government between four potential centers: Cuba’s national president, who was still elected indirectly; a prime minister for day-to-day government; the president of the reformed Council of State and National Assembly; and the party leader.

The combination of Donald Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the external context in which these alterations were being made. First, Trump imposed a package of two hundred forty measures to tighten up the embargo, then the pandemic had a drastic impact on revenue from tourism. The combination produced a deep economic crisis.

That crisis accelerated the implementation of one policy that was long overdue: the abolition of Cuba’s confusing and corrosive dual-currency system. Created in 1993 as a short-term fix, it was already causing economic and social distortions by the end of that decade, yet no one — including the Cuban government — seemed to know how or when it could be ended. COVID-19 supplied the opportunity to do so through necessity.

In December 2020, the people of the island heard a shock announcement that their government was to fuse the two currencies from January 1, 2021. The move threatened to cause real challenges for many Cubans, but was likely to bring long-term benefits for most. Although the move came from Díaz-Canel, he would never have proposed it without Raúl’s ideological approval.

Overall, the dominant stereotypes of Raúl were always wide of the mark. He was neither an irrelevant younger brother nor an evil genius, neither a hard-line ideologue nor a boring “systems man,” but rather the last of the Cuban revolution’s three historic leaders, one of those who had planned to embark on a project of nation-building through some form of socialism.

After succeeding Fidel in 2006–8, he inherited a process that was in urgent need of adjustment. He set out to reform, update, restructure, and streamline as much as he could, precisely in order to preserve the essence and original goal of the revolution. The future of the system he helped build and transform now lies in the hands of a new generation.