With the retirement this month of Raul Castro as first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, the 60-year rule of the Castro family seemed to have come to an end.
Or did it?
Yes, Fidel Castro, leader of the revolution that took power in 1959, died in 2016. Brother Raul, at age 90, is in his dotage and on Monday he was replaced by Miguel Diaz-Canel, a longtime party stalwart.
But there are two other secretive yet powerful relatives of Raul Castro – a son, Alejandro, and son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas – who control key government institutions that make them counterweights to the new leader.
Alejandro oversees Cuba’s military and civilian intelligence services and as such is an enforcer of communist orthodoxy and loyalty. Lopez-Callejas controls GAESA, a military-run conglomerate that is in charge of at least half of Cuba’s economy.
Their place on the political stage challenges the notion that the Castro family has truly detached itself from ruling the island. Both Alejandro and Luis reflect the lingering power of the military, a reflection of Raul Castro’s multi-decade control of the armed forces.
Moreover, their powerful positions guarantee the economic interests and social status of the extended Castro family. The Castro clan has become rich atop an impoverished and formally classless society. Forbes magazine once estimated Fidel Castro’s net worth at $900 million; Raul’s is a modest $150 million, by other counts.
Loose use of social media exposed their high living to the public. Various grandchildren of both Raul and Fidel have been spied yachting in the Mediterranean, touring Paris, frequenting VIP sections of Havana discotheques and frolicking in family villas on Cuba’s best beaches. A grandson of Fidel Castro recently apologized for an online video selfie he shot while driving a Mercedes Benz and talking about other “toys” he enjoyed at home.
Alongside the visible wealth of Cuba’s long-time first family, the country faces a problem that has dogged other aging Communist states: the unwillingness of entrenched powers to cede full control to successors.
Post-Mao China settled on transfers of top offices within the party and government until the current reign of Xi Jinping, who, as China eliminated term limits in 2018, maneuvered himself into a presidency-for-life. The Kim family dynasty, currently represented by supreme leader Kim Jong-un, is into its eighth decade running North Korea.
The ambiguity of Cuba’s current power pyramid is rooted in Raul Castro’s lengthy role as close advisor to his brother Fidel as well as his position as armed forces minister. He stepped down from that post in 2008, while gradually assuming full power as Communist Party head and chief of state after Fidel took ill in 2006.
Alejandro Castro, an army colonel attached to the Ministry of the Interior, played the role of the jefe maximo’s trusted advisor. He was involved in secret negotiations with the Obama regime to renew diplomatic relations with Washington and was at Raul’s side when the Cuban leader met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
In his Interior Ministry job, Alejandro oversees the intelligence services of both the armed forces and the interior ministry.
Alejandro’s hand on information – he heads a permanent anti-corruption investigatory commission – makes him feared not only by political dissidents but also by ambitious politicians within the Communist Party. In 2009, he wiretapped two high officials – one a foreign minister, the other a vice president – who conversed casually about a post-Castro succession. Fidel quickly fired them both.
Lopez-Callejas is an army general running GAESA, acronym for Grupo de Administracion Empresorial SA.
It controls more than 1,000 state entities, among them cash cows like hotels, money exchange offices that handle remittances from abroad, banks, a credit card enterprise, stores that sell imported goods, satellite TV services, telecoms, a new port east of Havana, offshore businesses used to skirt US trade restrictions and restaurant and bars in Old Havana, a top tourist district of the capital.
If you order a daiquiri at the Floridita Bar, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunt, you are filling GAESA’s coffers.
Where does the money go? Who knows. Because GAESA is a military enterprise, finances are a state secret. Donald Trump tried putting the squeeze on the outfit by forbidding US companies from doing business with GAESA. It’s not clear whether Joe Biden, who has systematically reversed many of Trump’s policies, will renew relations with Cuba.
Anyhow, be assured that, with Alejandro Castro and Lopez-Callejas still in office after Raul leaves the scene, the Castro dynasty lives on.
Daniel Williams is a former career foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald. He began his career reprting on Latin America for the Miami News, worked for the Spanish-language section of the Herald at the time of the Mariel boat exodus and has continued his involvement since then. He is currently based in Rome.