Melanie stern is section editor of Families in Business.
Observers speculate that Fidel Castro's brother Raul will usher in open markets, better foreign relations and a 'nicer' communist dictatorship for the Cuban people. This is one family business succession that could change everything – or nothing, finds Melanie Stern
Most Cubans have lost count of the number of times their president and comandante Fidel Castro has 'died'. But he is still here, controlling his tropical communist outpost with an iron fist, allegedly creaming enough personal wealth from the country's state-owned companies and tourism industry to be ranked alongside the Queen.
But on July 31, following emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding requiring weeks of total bedrest, it was announced that Fidel had "temporarily" transferred all his powers over economy and state to brother Raul – 75 to Fidel's 80. Raul was Cuba's defence minister and staunch right-hand man to Fidel since he put himself in power 47 years ago. It is the first time Fidel has relinquished power in his tenure. Many think the move far more significant than an interim solution, believing Raul will stay in power and that Fidel will not be around much longer.
Many are now holding their breath to see what will become of Cuba under new management, and whether it will be a seamless handover of little consequence – or whether Raul will seek to put his own mark on the empire.
Aside from Raul, only a few members of Fidel's family work for him controlling the communist regime at executive level. Brother Ramon, also septuagenarian, is an adviser to several commercial ministries run by the country's sole political party; sisters Angela, Juanita, Emma and Agustina are not involved in running the party. There is a second generation of Castros in sons Angel, Antonio, Alejandro, Alexis, Alex and Fidelito – the latter is the only one known to have worked for his father's government, as executive secretary of the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission from 1980 to 1992, having studied nuclear physics in the former Soviet Union under a false name. He is now reportedly working as a consultant for Cuba's ministry for 'basic industries'. Fidel's son-in-law, Major Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, runs the board of Cimex subsidiary GAESA. (Under typical socialist-style central planning, Fidel also controls Cuba's economy. State-owned Cimex corporation, a holding company for a web of other companies including two banks, allegedly funnels about $900 million – though Fidel denies this – directly to the president each year, including a nice annual tithe from the country's tourism industry.)
But for now, the future of the Castro family empire leans on Raul. The little that is known about Raul publicly points to an altogether softer personality and less autocratic leadership style. He is less colourful – lacking his brother's reputation for passionate oratory – but is thought to be extremely well-organised, something Fidel never pinned down. He is expected to look to the modern Chinese theory of blending capitalist free-market ideals with the basic socialist tenets of military leadership, in order to help Cuba's stricken economy stand on its own two feet and increase trade with other countries. "I think [Raul] is also going to want better relations and more dialogue with the US," Brian Latell, Miami-based author of the book After Fidel, told Time magazine in August.
However, many Cubans at home and abroad are sceptical. Some speculate the image of Raul as a sort of cuddly communist, in comparison to his brother at least, is simply engineered by the communist party's spin doctors to gauge feeling on Raul as leader. A report in the New York Sun newspaper on the day of the news summed up a cynical mood. "Castro or Castro, it makes no difference," the paper quoted a Cuban-born teacher as saying. "We are still being told we have to sacrifice for the revolution."
Equally important, is who would take over from Raul after his time. Fidel may have pledged to rule for the rest of his life – and who knows if his comment that he expects to live to at least 100 was tongue in cheek or trademark defiance – but Raul is no spring chicken himself, and doesn't appear to have any family members to choose as his successor. Maybe he should call John Ward for advice.