HAVANA, June 3, 2006 — -- President Fidel Castro's younger brother and the second most powerful man in Cuba, Defense Minister Raul Castro, turned 75 today.
The birthday was sure to increase anxiety among the country's 11.2 million inhabitants over the future, and to fuel expectations change will soon come to the Caribbean island among more than a million Cuban-Americans.
"Think about it: Raul turned 75 this weekend and Fidel will be 80 in August," said Frank Mora, an expert on the Cuban military at the National War College in Washington. "The significance, in terms of Cuba's future, when the two men who shaped it for nearly half a century are gone is obvious."
Since the earliest days of the 1959 revolution, Raul Castro has watched his brother's back as head of the armed forces and, since 1990, the security apparatus. But he has also been first vice president of the Council of State and second secretary of the Communist Party, and thus constitutionally in line to succeed Fidel Castro as president and leader of the only legal political party in the country.
Cuba's official media ran glowing stories and documentaries about Raul today, portraying him as a perfect revolutionary, patriot and father.
"When they die, I'm going to go hide under my bed," a Havana housewife said, expressing the sentiments of many here.
Some people begin to cry at the very mention of the Castro brothers' passing. Others insist they will defend the current system come what may, and still others say that more political and economic space should follow.
"If something happens to me tomorrow, the National Assembly will surely meet and elect him [Raul]," Fidel Castro told Ignacio Ramonet, the director of Le Monde Diplomatique, in an interview published as a book this year.
But then, Castro admitted his brother is getting on in years too.
"But already he is getting near my age and this problem [succession] is more generational," he said. "Now there are new generations [coming forward] because our generation is already passing."
Most top Communist party officials, military officers and ministers are now between 40 and 60 years of age, though the few "historicos" left, in particular the Castro brothers, still clearly set policy.
In this secretive society, no one is quite sure who will come after the Castro brothers, though the two insist future leaders will follow in their socialist footsteps and continue support for the world's downtrodden and offer fierce opposition to "U.S. imperialism."
Little is known about Raul's personal life or those of his three daughters and one son with wife Vilma Espin, one of the country's most important revolutionary figures. One daughter is a sexologist, another dolphin trainer. At least two of Raul's sons in laws have held important positions within the government or military.
Raul is a man of few words who is known within Cuba more for his organizational talents, loyalty to his men and humor than for grand vision and diplomacy. He is rarely seen in public, travels little and never gives interviews to foreign reporters. He was in the United States just once for two days in 1959.
"Raul is his brother's keeper in many ways, but in many other ways he is his own man," Mora said. "He is credited with building the revolutionary armed forces, demonstrates management skills, leadership skills, and I think he is someone who is taken very seriously in Cuba."
An increasing number of security experts, including in the United States, believe Raul might be the best option, even if a brief one, to avoid chaos upon Fidel Castro's death, said Hal Klepak of the Royal Military College of Canada.
The Bush administration, the Cuban-American establishment and dissidents all say they are working to make sure that Raul does not follow his brother and that whomever does moves the country in a capitalist and democratic direction.
"U.S. policy must be targeted at undermining this succession strategy," said the Bush administration's Cuba transition report, of plans for Raul to take over from his brother.
Klepak, who developed numerous military contacts while researching his recently published book on the armed forces, said he doubts the country or military would simply cave in as European communist countries did.
"This is legitimate armed forces serving what it thinks is a legitimate state and legitimate revolution. They have no intention of disappearing," he said.
"No one in Cuba talks about people not fighting if there is a need to fight, as they didn't come to power on the tip of soviet bayonets," Klepak said.