Biography of Raul Castro

Fidel's Brother and Right Hand Man

Raul Castro. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Raúl Castro (1931-) is the current President of Cuba and brother of Cuban Revolution leader Fidel Castro. Unlike his brother, Raúl is quiet and reserved and spent most of his life in his older brother’s shadow. Nevertheless, Raúl played a very important role in the Cuban Revolution as well as in the government of Cuba after the revolution was over.

Early Years

Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz was one of the several illegitimate children born to sugar farmer Angel Castro and his maid, Lina Ruz González.

Young Raúl attended the same schools as his older brother but was neither as studious nor gregarious as Fidel. He was just as rebellious, however, and had a history of discipline problems. When Fidel became active in student groups as a leader, Raúl quietly joined a student communist group. He would always be as ardent a communist as his brother, if not more so. Raúl eventually became a leader himself of these student groups, organizing protests and demonstrations.

Personal Life

Raúl married his girlfriend and fellow revolutionary Vilma Espín not long after the triumph of the revolution. They have four children. She passed away in 2007. Raúl leads an austere personal life, although there have been rumors that he may be an alcoholic. He is thought to despise homosexuals and reputedly influenced Fidel to jail them in the early years of their administration. Raúl has been consistently dogged by rumors that Angel Castro was not his real father.

The most likely candidate, former rural guardsman Felipe Miraval, never denied nor confirmed the possibility.

Moncada

Like many socialists, Raúl was disgusted by the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. When Fidel began planning a revolution, Raúl was included from the start. The first armed action of the rebels was the July 26, 1953, attack on the federal barracks at Moncada outside of Santiago.

Raúl, barely 22 years old, was assigned to the team sent to occupy the Palace of Justice. His car got lost on the way there, so they arrived late, but did secure the building. When the operation fell apart, Raúl and his companions dropped their weapons, put on civilian clothes, and walked out onto the street. He was eventually arrested.

Prison and Exile

Raúl was convicted of his role in the uprising and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Like his brother and some of the other leaders of the Moncada assault, he was sent to the Isle of Pines prison. There, they formed the 26th of July Movement (named for the date of the Moncada assault) and began plotting how to continue the revolution. In 1955 President Batista, responding to international pressure to release political prisoners, freed the men who had planned and carried out the Moncada assault. Fidel and Raúl, fearing for their lives, quickly went into exile in Mexico.

Return to Cuba

During their time in exile, Raúl befriended Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, an Argentine doctor who was also a committed communist. Raúl introduced his new friend to his brother, and the two hit it right off. Raúl, by now a veteran of armed actions as well as prison, took an active role in the 26th of July Movement.

Raúl, Fidel, Ché, and new recruit Camilo Cienfuegos were among the 82 people who crowded on board the 12-person yacht Granma in November 1956 along with food and weapons to return to Cuba and start the revolution.

In the Sierra

Miraculously, the battered Granma carried all 82 passengers the 1,500 miles to Cuba. The rebels were quickly discovered and attacked by the army, however, and less than 20 made it into the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The Castro brothers soon began waging a guerrilla war against Batista, collecting recruits and weapons when they could. In 1958 Raúl was promoted to Comandante and given a force of 65 men and sent to the north coast of Oriente Province. While there, he imprisoned about 50 Americans, hoping to use them to keep the United States from intervening on behalf of Batista.

The hostages were quickly released.

Triumph of the Revolution

In the waning days of 1958, Fidel made his move, sending Cienfuegos and Guevara in command of most of the rebel army, against army installations and important cities. When Guevara decisively won the Battle of Santa Clara, Batista realized he could not win and fled the country on January 1, 1959. The rebels, including Raúl, rode triumphantly into Havana.

Mopping Up After Batista

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Raúl and Ché were given the task of rooting out supporters of former dictator Batista. Raúl, who had already begun setting up an intelligence service, was the perfect man for the job: he was ruthless and totally loyal to his brother. Raúl and Ché oversaw hundreds of trials, many of which resulted in executions. Most of those executed had served as policemen or army officers under Batista.

Role in Government and Legacy

As Fidel Castro transformed the revolution into government, he came to rely on Raúl more and more. In the 50 years after the revolution, Raúl served as head of the Communist Party, minister of defense, vice president of the Council of State, and many more important positions. He has generally been most identified with the military: he has been Cuba’s top-ranking military officer since soon after the Revolution. He advised his brother during times of crisis such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As Fidel’s health faded, Raúl came to be considered as the logical (and perhaps the only possible) successor.

An ailing Castro turned over the reins of power to Raúl in July 2006, and in January 2008 Raúl was elected president in his own right, Fidel having withdrawn his name from consideration.

Many see Raúl as being more pragmatic than Fidel, and there was some hope that Raúl would loosen the restrictions placed on Cuban citizens. He has done so, although not to the extent that some expected. Cubans can now own cell phones and consumer electronics. Economic reforms were implemented in 2011 to encourage more private initiative, foreign investment, and agrarian reforms. He limited terms for president, and he will step down after his second term as president ends in 2018.

Normalization of relations with the United States began in earnest under Raúl, and full diplomatic relations were resumed in 2015. President Obama visited Cuba and met with Raúl in 2016.

It will be interesting to see who succeeds Raúl as President of Cuba, as the torch gets handed to the next generation.

Sources

Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.

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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Raul Castro." ThoughtCo, Aug. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/biography-of-raul-castro-2136624. Minster, Christopher. (2017, August 14). Biography of Raul Castro. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-raul-castro-2136624 Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Raul Castro." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-raul-castro-2136624 (accessed January 16, 2018).