When Cuban President Raul Castro spoke last week at the old military garrison where he and his older brother Fidel began the Cuban revolution 55 years ago, the younger Castro looked minuscule compared with the outsize banner looming over him of his bearded predecessor.
It was a fitting symbol of Raul’s government, which willingly operates in Fidel’s shadow at the same time as it tries to forge a path of its own.
Raul, whose functionaries hung the banner of Fidel at the entrance to the Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba before the July 26 holiday, which commemorates a failed attack on the garrison, says he has voluntarily submitted his speeches to his brother for approval, even when he plans to diverge from what his brother would have said.
Policy changes are also hand-carried to Fidel’s sick bed, even when they veer from Fidel’s longstanding dictates. And Raul does not miss a chance to praise his brother from the lectern, using him as a symbol of revolutionary vigor, even as he argues that the Socialist experiment his brother created has drifted significantly off course.
This odd dynamic of two brothers portraying themselves as joined at the hip even as they seem to veer apart in important ways may be awkward, but it serves both men’s interests. Raul derives much of his legitimacy from the family name and the popularity of his brother, who is known among Cubans not just by his first name but by a gesture: a touch of the chin as if stroking an imaginary beard.
And Fidel, who left the country in such economic disarray that it seems held together by its black market system, gets to save face.
The two men are clearly different in style, with Raul far more self-effacing than Fidel.
Raul, 77, recently sent a signal of his mortality when the government organized a bus tour for reporters that showed where the president would be buried alongside his recently deceased wife. The grave is already marked Raul.
In contrast, the specifics of the intestinal ailment that led Fidel — who turns 82 this month — to yield power to his brother remain a state secret, and his burial place is a big mystery.
The former president, who could give a speech lasting hours and regularly did, has not been seen in public for two years but seems as eager as ever to air his views. His new form of venting appears to be through stream-of-consciousness reflections that he jots in a notebook and that the Communist Party newspapers dutifully print on the front page as scoops.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
Some of Fidel’s recent commentaries have appeared somewhat defensive, sounding a bit like a man trying to defend his legacy even as he ostensibly participates in the remaking of it.
After Raul fired his brother’s longtime education minister, Luis Ignacio Gomez, just two months after taking over the presidency in February, Fidel took partial credit for the move, saying Gomez had lost his revolutionary zeal.
“I was consulted and completely informed,” Fidel wrote of the decision in the Communist Party newspaper Granma and other state-run media.
The commentary criticized Gomez for his frequent world travels and for taking personal credit for the overhaul of Cuba’s schools, which are ranked among the best in Latin America. The essay raised the question, however, of why Fidel did not fire such a wayward minister himself during the more than 18 years that Gomez, who was a staunch backer of Fidel, was on the job.
Later, Raul announced new incentives to lure retired teachers back to the classroom to make up for a nationwide deficit of 8,000 teachers, most of whom have sought other, higher-paying jobs, in Cuba or have left the island.
He acknowledged “shortcomings” in the education system, which some Cubans saw as a critique of the program his brother put in place nearly a decade ago to use high school graduates as makeshift teachers.
Cuban parents who have the means frequently hire retired teachers to tutor their children in the evenings because they are less than impressed with the schools, where some classes have 40 students crammed together.
“We shouldn’t have to hire someone on the side so that our children learn,” said Juan, the father of a third grader who railed against both Castro brothers but was afraid to be identified further out of concern he would run afoul of the authorities.
“Our schools have fallen into a hole,” said a 20-year teaching veteran who has left the classroom to work in a beauty salon because he said salaries were too low, less than US$20 a month.
“I don’t see myself returning,” he said, also requesting anonymity.
Such commentaries have been heard frequently, Cubans say, in the neighborhood meetings that Raul has encouraged to bring deficiencies to the attention of Cuban authorities and to engage the population in refining Cuba’s socialism.
But Fidel has dismissed the idea that Cuba’s classrooms are suffering.
“I don’t believe, to begin with, that we’re in such bad shape,” he said in a recent commentary.
Fidel has warned in his writings against making “shameful concessions to imperialist ideology,” even as Raul has allowed greater access for Cubans to cellphones, electrical appliances, tourist hotels and rental cars.
Still, Raul has sought to reinforce the notion that there is no rift between the brothers and that the changes amount to tweaking, not an overhaul.
During a recent speech to the National Assembly, he said he had cleared the remarks outlining his education plan with Fidel, referring to his brother with the ubiquitous chin stroke.
“Sometimes it’s him who gives me international news that I haven’t had time to read,” Raul said of Fidel.
The two men, in their complicated new roles, sometimes find themselves communicating through proxies.
Raul, for instance, said that he did not hear directly from his brother about the speech to the National Assembly but got a call from an assistant, who passed along word that it was “perfect.”
Raul, in turn, told the assistant to congratulate his brother.
“She replied, ‘Congratulate him?’” Raul said. “And I said, ‘Yes, congratulate him, because he has a very intelligent brother who learned everything from him.’”
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