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A Castro will no longer be leading Cuba. But there are relatives still in government.

Cuban President Raul Castro, center. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

For the first time in over six decades, no one with the Castro surname will be at the helm of Cuba’s government. But there are still a few Castro family members in positions of influence.

Raul Castro, 89, announced Friday that he is stepping down as first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, a position considered more powerful than president. A new leader will be named by Monday. It is widely expected that the nation’s current chief of state — not a Castro — will take over.

“I will continue participating as one more revolutionary combatant, willing to make my modest contribution until the end of my life,” Castro told delegates at Eighth Communist Party Congress.

By and large, the descendants of Fidel and Raul Castro have shied away from politics. A handful of relatives have publicly broken with the regime. Some have come under fire for flaunting lavish lifestyles.

But within the government, there are still a few other Castros. Raul Castro’s daughter is the leader of a national institution that advocates for the rights of the LGBTQ community on the island. A son who was crucial in re-establishing U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations working in intelligence at the Ministry of the Interior. And a former son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, is the head of the island’s powerful conglomerate of military enterprises.

“The founding generation had a kind of iconic status,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University and an expert on Latin America. “Now, you have a new generation who were not the heroes of the triumph of the revolution. They’ve got to sort of prove their legitimacy by performance. And in Cuba, the performance is making the economy better.”

The change in power is taking place at a time when the island’s leaders are trying to diversify their ranks and hand over the reins to a new generation not alive during the 1959 revolution. But it’s unclear whether the Castro kin will play an outsize role. Despite the handing of power from one Castro brother to another, both of whom played major roles during the revolution, Cuba isn’t likely to become a family dynasty.

At the forefront of the new generation is Mariela Castro Espin, the 58-year-old daughter of Raul Castro and Vilma Espin. In an island with a dark history of persecuting gay and lesbian people, she has been a fervent activist for LGBTQ rights in Cuba and leads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. In 2014, she became the first member of Cuba’s National Assembly to vote against a piece of legislation that sought to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. She argued the proposal did not include language protecting employees based on gender identity.

Independent activists have criticized Castro Espin for not going far enough to criticize her family’s authoritarian rule. And while she led a fight to include equal marriage in the island’s constitutional reform in 2019, the proposal was scrapped following pressure from Evangelical churches, casting doubt on the extent of her influence.

Her younger brother, Alejandro Castro Espin, 55, has held more powerful roles as a national security adviser to their father and head of intelligence at the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba. He was a visible figure during Cuba’s negotiations with the United States to set the terms of President Barack Obama’s policies of re-engagement toward the island.

Another powerful figure in government within the Castro family is Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, Raul Castro’s former son-in-law. He’s the head of GAESA, the island’s conglomerate of military companies, which controls more thanr 50 lucrative businesses in the island’s tourism, remittances, real estate, shipping, construction and other important sectors.

He is believed to have had a heavy hand in electing the current prime minister, Manuel Marrero, who was previously in charge of a tourism chain run by GAESA.

Perhaps more importantly, LeoGrande said, is that while these three main figures may continue to be relevant in Cuba’s government, there’s pressure for the party to expand its power structure to include women, Black Cubans and younger leaders.

“I think it’s a politically dangerous time for the government,” LeoGrande said. “If they don’t make progress in representing those constituencies, it shows a kind of unresponsiveness to the country’s political needs.”

Raul Castro’s exit from the party is taking place amid soaring inequality, crippling sanctions that have limited the transfer of remittances from abroad, and ongoing protests from artists and activists. Images of the Castro grandchildren enjoying lives of luxury have infuriated many.

Tony Castro Ulloa, one of Fidel Castro’s grandsons, regularly documents lavish trips around the world and vacations in parts of Cuba that are legally closed off to island residents. Sandro Castro, another grandson, manages nightclubs throughout Havana and was recently seen in an Instagram video that went viral drinking a beer behind the wheel of a Mercedes Benz, bragging about driving over the speed limit.

Raul Castro’s granddaughter, Vilma Rodriguez, has been chastised online for reportedly profiting from several Airbnb properties on the island, including a mansion for $650 a night in the capital city, an astronomical price for most Cuban residents.

The youngest Castro descendants’ lifestyle “speaks not so much about a family dynasty that wants to perpetuate itself in power, but rather a group of people who’ve used their connections to have a life of luxuries,” said Professor Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

Since Fidel Castro’s death in 2016, Raul Castro has appointed loyalists to key positions, but deviated from the behavior of other autocratic regimes in which the leader’s descendants are seen as the rightful heirs to power, said Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuba expert and professor of International Relations and Politics at Holy Names University.

“I think the totalitarian period of the Cuban revolution had, as an essential component, Fidel Castro’s charisma,” said Lopez Levy. “That particular moment has already passed and it has left, as a consequence, a halo deep within the political base that has followed him.”

He said that the “continuity” of Cuba’s communist system has little to do with family ties. Raul Castro followed in his brother’s footsteps, Lopez Levy said, not just because they were close family, but because there was no other leader from the “historic generation” of rebel commanders who could reasonably step in.

“So what’s going to happen to the Castro family? They will continue having a privileged position,” he said. “Does that mean they will manage the country? I don’t think so.”


© 2021 Miami Herald
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