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A rapprochement with America is part of his plan to save socialism from itself
he more things change, the more they can stay the same. Last week, Raúl Castro launched into a long speech against the US. Addressing a regional summit in Panama, the Cuban president listed a century of complaints, from US usurpation of the 19th century wars of independence up to the embargo of the current day. Then the revolutionary leader abruptly changed tack — and apologised.
Barack Obama, who was listening, is an “honest man”, Mr Castro said. The 83-year-old former general, wearing a dark suit and tie rather than military fatigues, had even read “parts” of the US president’s biography. Mr Castro added that he had “meditated deeply” about these words, repeatedly removing them from his speech and putting them back in. “I am satisfied with that,” he said.
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The compliment, and Mr Castro’s subsequent formal meeting with Mr Obama — the first between the two country’s presidents in more than 50 years — are the latest steps in the delicate process of rapprochement that began in December that aim to end the 53-year-old US embargo, and turn a last page on the cold war. It also contains a potent symmetry. What began as an ideological confrontation between an ageing US general, President Dwight Eisenhower, and a young and charismatic lawyer, Fidel Castro, has evolved into a respectful conversation between a charismatic black lawyer from Washington and an ageing white general from Havana.
The rapprochement began as back-channel talks two years ago, shortly after Hugo Chávez died of cancer. Venezuela’s socialist president had provided Cuba with billions of dollars of subsidised oil and the Castro brothers recognised that Chávez’s death presaged chaos in Caracas, ultimately threatening Havana. Fidel, the elder brother, had stepped down as president in 2008, suffering from ill health. Mr Castro replaced the cabinet and started liberalising Cuba’s Soviet-style economy. In the past four years, he has slimmed the state sector, allowed self-employment and a free market in homes, and courted foreign investment. By turning to capitalism, it seems, he aims to save Cuba’s socialist revolution from itself.
The prospect has unleashed a carnival of US business expectations. Although only a market of 11m people, similar in size to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, Cuba enjoys the mystique of forbidden fruit. Netflix and Airbnb are opening; big banks say they are interested. Tourist agents have capitalised on the giddy mood, urging people to visit before the Yankee floodgates open; visits reportedly rose 16 per cent in January.
Like Fidel, Mr Castro was born on the family farm in eastern Cuba. Their father, Angel, a Spanish immigrant, was a wealthy landowner; their mother, Lina Ruz González, a maid who became Angel’s second wife. Both went to Jesuit schools. For many years Mr Castro literally lived in his elder brother’s shadow — he is eight inches shorter. Yet he is also an accomplished man. In more than five decades as defence minister, he built the army into a formidable force that won multiple African military campaigns in the proxy conflicts of the cold war and now controls the heights of the economy.
At times ruthless — he was prominent in the campaign against General Orlando Ochoa, a popular soldier and possible rival, executed on corruption charges in 1989 — Mr Castro shares the same ideology as Fidel. Yet their styles could not be more different. Mr Castro is more pragmatic, known to be a family man and less austere than Fidel, who reportedly drained his swimming pool during the dark days of mass rationing that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse. He has four children with Vilma Espín, the daughter of a lawyer of the wealthy Bacardí family, who died in 2007, and lives in a compound on the outskirts of Havana, screened by vegetation and metal fencing. Jovial in private, his favourite pastime is said to be playing dominoes over a bottle of rum with friends, and in public he is known for his wry wit. When Hugh Thomas, the British historian, asked during the charismatic early days of the revolution if he had a message for England, Mr Castro replied: “For whom in England?”
Mr Castro’s allies and family have followed him into government. Nine of the Politburo’s 14 members are uniformed military, as are five of the seven Council of Ministers. His only son, Alejandro, an interior ministry official, was at the meeting with Mr Obama in Panama. Luis Alberto Fernández, who was once married to Mr Castro’s daughter Deborah (they are rumoured to have divorced), is a colonel and manages military business interests. Deborah’s son, Raúl, is often at his grandfather’s side in public, apparently as bodyguard.
The US popular mood has swung behind Mr Obama’s move. In the latest step, Washington on Tuesday moved to drop Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror, opening Havana’s access to sources of international finance. Yet removal of the embargo, which requires an act of Congress, is still a long way off.
Washington’s bet is that the gradual opening will foster change. Mr Castro’s is that Havana can control it, “perfecting” socialism. He is set to step down in 2018 and be replaced by Miguel Díaz-Canel, the civilian vice-president. But dissidents warn Alejandro will remain the power behind the throne for time to come. “No one should have any illusions,” Mr Castro said in Panama. The US and Cuba “have many differences . . . we need to be patient, very patient”.
The writer is the FT’s Latin America editor. Additional reporting by Marc Frank