Castro, Raúl (Cuba)

Reference work entry


Raúl Castro was elected president by the National Assembly of People’s Power on 24 Feb. 2008. His first 5 year term began when he replaced his brother, Fidel, who had held office for 49 years. While less charismatic than his brother, he preserved the essence of Cuba’s brand of socialism. He was re-elected in Feb. 2013.

Early Life

Raúl Castro was born on 3 June 1931 in Birán, in the Oriente province (now Santiago de Cuba). His father was a sugar plantation owner of Spanish origin and his mother a housemaid. After expulsion from his first school Raúl attended the Jesuit-run Colegio Dolores in Santiago and the Belén School in Havana, before graduating as a sergeant from military college. He attended the University of Havana until 1953, when his involvement in politics cut short his studies.

Raúl was a member of the Socialist Youth group, affiliated to the Moscow-orientated Popular Socialist Party. His travels to the Soviet bloc in 1953 prompted him to turn against the then president, Fulgencio Batista, culminating that year in the failed 26 July attack on the Moncada barracks alongside brother Fidel. Both were imprisoned but then exiled to Mexico 22 months later. Raúl subsequently helped organize the 26 July Revolutionary Movement and the failed coup attempt of 1956.

Raúl then took charge of the military campaign in the east of the country and victory was achieved in 1959 when Batista went into exile. Raúl secured his place as Fidel’s right hand man, politically and militarily. He was appointed minister for the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and played a key role during the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and in the Cuban missile crisis the following year.

In 1965 he was promoted to the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) Politburo and made second secretary of the central committee behind Fidel. In 1972 he became first vice-premier and 4 years later the new National Assembly of People’s Power elected him vice-president. The Castro hierarchy was endorsed with total support at each of the congressional party sessions from 1975–97. As vice-president he was pivotal in the close relationship with the Eastern European communist bloc until the 1990s when he engineered the economic shift away from former Soviet dependency. From 2000–02 his public profile grew as he stood in for Fidel on diplomatic tours of China and South East Asia.

When Fidel underwent abdominal surgery in July 2006, Raúl became acting president. On 19 Feb. 2008 Fidel announced his formal resignation and Raúl was elected his successor by the National Assembly.

Career Peak

Raúl’s key challenges have been economic. Early signs of greater market freedom included allowing Cubans to stay in tourist hotels and rent cars and the lifting of bans on ownership of consumer products such as mobile phones, computers and DVD players. However, such products have remained unaffordable to average citizens.

In mid-2008 the government relaxed restrictions on the amount of idle state-owned land available to private farmers and announced plans to abandon salary equality in a radical departure from Marxist principles. In the wake of two hurricanes in 2008 that devastated homes and crops in Cuba, a US offer of emergency aid was rejected by Raúl, who instead demanded a lifting of the long-standing US trade embargo.

In March 2009 and again in Jan. 2011 the Obama administration eased the US embargo, lifting restrictions on remittances and visits to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. Despite this slight thaw in relations, Raúl continued to crack down on political dissent. Nevertheless, in Sept. 2010 he unveiled limited plans to further liberalize the economy by laying off thousands of state employees while legalizing self-employment in many areas and allowing more private enterprise. In Nov. he also announced the convening of a long-overdue PCC congress to be held in April 2011 (the first since 1997) to approve the plans, at which he was elected first secretary of the party. The Organization of American States had meanwhile voted in June 2009 to end Cuba’s diplomatic suspension dating back to 1962.

In Nov. 2011 legislation enabling individuals to buy and sell property for the first time since the revolution was passed. A subsequent papal visit to Cuba in March 2012 prompted a government amnesty for some 2,500 prisoners, including political detainees, and the restoration of recognition for a religious holiday. Then in Oct. the government abolished the requirement that most citizens, other than certain professionals, acquire exit visas to travel abroad.

Having been re-elected in Feb. 2013, Raúl announced that he would stand down at the end of his second term and in July that year he removed several senior figures from the PCC central committee in an apparent gradual transfer of power to a younger generation. In early 2014 parliament approved a new foreign investment law allowing Cubans living abroad to invest in certain enterprises for the first time, and the government also began talks with the European Union on restoring political relations and boosting economic ties.

In Dec. 2014 Castro and US president Barack Obama agreed a landmark deal, brokered in part by Pope Francis, to begin normalizing bilateral relations and in April 2015 they held the first leaders’ summit in nearly 60 years. This was followed in July that year by the full restoration of diplomatic ties, and in March 2016 Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba since 1928. On 25 Nov. 2016 Castro announced the death of his brother Fidel at the age of 90.

First Vice-President Díaz-Canel was elected president by the National Assembly on 18 April 2018 and took office the next day, although Castro stayed on as head of the Communist Party.

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