On July 31, 2006, Raúl Castro assumed the duties of President of the Council of State in a temporary transfer of power due to Fidel Castro's illness. According to the Cuban Constitution Article 94, the First Vice President of the Council of State assumes presidential duties upon the illness or death of the president.
Raúl Castro was elected President at the 24 February 2008, National Assembly session, as Fidel Castro had announced his intention not to stand for President again on 19 February 2008.
Son of Spanish immigrant Ángel Castro and Lina Ruz, a Cuban woman of Galician ancestry, Raúl is the youngest of the three Castro brothers. He also has four sisters, Angela, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina, and two half siblings, Lidia and Pedro Emilio, who were raised by Ángel Castro's first wife. Persistent rumors supported by former CIA analyst Brian Latell are taken to suggest that Batista army loyalist Felipe Miraval, nicknamed "el Chino" is Raúl's, but not Fidel's, father. As youngsters, the Castro brothers were expelled from the first school they attended. Like Fidel, Raúl later attended the Jesuit School of Colegio Dolores in Santiago and Colegio Belén in Havana. Raúl, as an undergraduate, studied social sciences. Whereas Fidel excelled as a student, Raúl's performance was mostly mediocre. Raúl was a committed socialist and joined the Socialist Youth, an affiliate of the Soviet-oriented Cuban Communist Party, Partido Socialista Popular (PSP). The brothers participated actively in sometimes violent student political actions. In 1953, Raúl was a member of the 26th of July Movement that attacked the Moncada Barracks, and he spent 22 months in prison as a result of this action. During his exile in Mexico, he participated in the preparations of the expedition of the ship Granma, embarking for Cuba on December 2, 1956.
It was during the period in Mexico that Raúl reportedly befriended Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Mexico City and brought him into Fidel's circle of revolutionaries. Raúl also established contact with Soviet KGB agent Nikolai Leonov, whom he had met two years earlier during a trip to the Soviet-bloc nations. That relationship would persist until the Castro brothers successfully assumed power in Cuba.
Raúl was one of the few survivors of the disastrous Granma landing. He was part of the tiny group of survivors who managed to reach a safe haven in the Sierra Maestra mountains (see the Cuban Revolution). As Fidel's brother and trusted right-hand man he was given progressively bigger commands. On February 27, 1958, Raúl was made comandante and assigned the mission to cross the old province of Oriente leading a column of guerrillas to open, to the northeast of that territory, the "Frank País Eastern Front."
As a result of Raúl's "Eastern Front" operations he was not involved in the pivotal Operation Verano (which came close to destroying the main body of fighters but ended up a spectacular victory for Fidel). However, Raúl's forces remained active and grew over time. By October 1958, after being reinforced by Fidel, the two brothers had about 2,000 fighters and they were operating freely throughout Oriente province. In December, while Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were operating around Santa Clara, Fidel and Raúl's army laid siege to Maffo (capturing it on December 30th). Their victorious army then headed to Santiago de Cuba, the capital of Oriente province.
Thanks to the loss of Santa Clara, Batista fled Cuba on night of December 31-January 1. The two Castro brothers with their army arrived on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba and said their forces would storm the city at 6 PM January 1 if it did not first surrender. The commander (Colonel Rego Rubido) surrendered Santiago de Cuba without a fight. The war was over and Fidel was able to take power in Havana when he arrived on January 6, 1959.
Raúl's abilities as a military leader during the revolution are hard to see clearly. Unlike Che Guevara or Cienfuegos, Raúl had no significant victories he could claim credit for on his own. The last operations (which were clearly successful) were conducted with his older brother Fidel present (and in command).
After Batista's fall, Raúl was responsible for overseeing the summary execution of "scores" of soldiers loyal to deposed president Fulgencio Batista.
Raúl Castro Ruz was a member of the National Leadership of the Integrated Revolutionary PO Organizations (established July 1961; dissolved March 1962) and of the United Party of the Socialist Revolution of Cuba (established March 1962; dissolved October 1965). He has been a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and the Second Secretary of its Politburo since the Party's formation in October 1965; also, the First Vice President of the Cuban Council of State, of the National Assembly of the Popular Power and of the Council of Ministers since these were created in 1976. He was appointed Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces when the Ministry was founded in October 1959 and served in that capacity until February 2008; he is also the nation's highest ranking general. Castro is credited with persuading his older brother to implement agricultural market reforms in the early 1990s which increased the food supply, after the Soviet Union fell and its generous subsidies to Cuba stopped.
On July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro's personal secretary Carlos Valenciaga announced on state-run television that Fidel Castro would provisionally hand over the duties of President of the Council of State of Cuba, First Secretary of the Communist Party and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to Raúl Castro while Fidel underwent and recovered from intestinal surgery to repair gastrointestinal bleeding.
Many commentators consider Raúl Castro to be a political hardliner who will maintain the Communist Party of Cuba's political power at all costs. However, there are others who believe that he is more pragmatic than his older brother and more willing to institute free market-oriented economic policies. It is speculated that he favours a variant of the current Chinese political and economic model for Cuba in the hopes of preserving some elements of the socialist system. However, none of these speculations has ever been confirmed by Raúl himself.
Several commentators, including some writers on the The Wall Street Journal, call Castro "uncharismatic and widely feared," with a "cold efficien[t]" style. He is accused of the persecution of dissidents and homosexuals. Additionally, some have speculated about Raúl's ill health, specifically alcoholism, raising doubts about his future leadership.
Raúl, considered much less charismatic than his brother Fidel Castro, has remained largely out of public view during the transfer of duty period. His few public appearances included hosting a gathering of leaders of the Non-Aligned nations in September 2006, and leading the national commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Granma boat landing, which also became Fidel's belated 80th birthday celebrations.
In a speech to university students, Raúl stated that a communist system in Cuba would remain, and that "Fidel is irreplaceable, unless we all replace him together."
On May 1, 2007, Raúl presided over the May Day celebrations in Havana. According to Granma the crowd reached over one million participants, with delegations from over 225 organizations and 52 countries.
While Fidel Castro historically mesmerized his countrymen with dramatic, extemporaneous speeches stretching over hours, brother Raúl is known for his businesslike, unanimated delivery, rarely bothering to look up from prepared texts. So Raúl offers, after the resignation of his brother Fidel, announced February 19, 2008, a quieter Castro voice.
On February 24, 2008, the National Assembly elected Raúl president of Cuba. Raúl delivered his inaugural address shortly afterward.
Taking his brother's place as President of Cuba in February 2008, Raúl Castro's government has been carrying out many changes. Unlike his brother, Raúl Castro has, among others things, allowed ordinary citizens to buy DVD-players, PC's, scooters and other energy-consuming products. He has also signed two United Nations human rights agreements, given unused state land for farming, freed many prisoners and loosened up travel restrictions for Cubans.
A few weeks after the 1959 victory, Castro married Vilma Espín Guillois, a former MIT chemical engineering student and veteran of the revolution who in 1960 became president of the Cuban Federation of Women. They have three daughters (Déborah, Mariela and Nilsa) and one son (Alejandro). Their daughter Mariela currently heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. Vilma Espín died on June 18, 2007, a daughter and some relatives of Raúl are believed to reside in Italy.
In an interview in 2006, following his assumption of presidential duties, Raúl Castro commented on his public profile stating: "I am not used to making frequent appearances in public, except at times when it is required … I have always been discreet, that is my way, and in passing I will clarify that I am thinking of continuing in that way."