Skip to main content

We'll Always Have Fidel

Over the last five years, the Castro Brothers have carefully groomed a cadre of would-be successors. Veteran Cuba watcher Ann Louise Bardach explains why, even after El Comandante is dead, El Comandante will live a long time.
Illustration by GRAHAM SMITH

Illustration by GRAHAM SMITH

EARLIER THIS YEAR, an elderly widow died in Havana. Her death, at 88, after a long decline from Alzheimer’s, was unremarkable except in one respect: Angela Castro Ruz was the eldest living member of the most enduring political dynasty in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

This year has brought many milestones for the Castro family. Angela’s most famous sibling, Fidel, the Maximum Leader of Cuba since 1959, turned 86 on August 13. October marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the fate of the world hung on the threat and promise of “mutually assured destruction.” In June, Fidel’s brother and political heir, Raúl, turned 81; the Caribbean nemesis of the United States is now squarely in the hands of octogenarians. The death of Angelita Castro no doubt brought grief to her brothers and perhaps also a grim musing on the poet’s words “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Since his famously close brush with death in July 2006, Fidel has endured multiple surgeries and hovered between life and death, but El Comandante has eked out a recovery worthy of Lazarus. Certainly, if vengeance were the fuel of eternal life, Castro would live forever. Or as the weary wags of Calle Ocho, the Miami mecca of Cuban exile life, lament, Castro “is immortal until proven otherwise.”

Yet the Cuban titan will never again be the man he once was. Even his famously loquacious speeches have been supplanted of late by rapid-fire Reflexiones, some barely longer than a tweet. Such brevity has inspired fevered prognostications from both sides of the Florida Straits: In a post-Castro world, who will lead the Caribbean’s largest island and country? The likely answer, to the chagrin of Washington and Miami, is—more Castros.

While eggheads and analysts at the State Department and the Pentagon have surmised that the Castro dynasty may not end with Raúl, debate continues in Foggy Bottom and among the aging exiles of Miami as to who in the next generation of Castros is most preferable and partial to reform. Just about the only consensus—on the half-century anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis—is how little change U.S.-Cuban relations have seen since 1959. One thing is clear: there will be no dramatic transition from Castroismo to a market-based economy; but rather a painstakingly slow transformation through myriad small, measured reforms, just enough to ensure the survival of the island nation—and its ruling family.

Indeed, Raúl Castro, who formally took over the reins of power from Fidel in 2008, sees his mission today, according to Frank Mora, formerly of the National War College, as “regime survival”: leading Cuba from “being less a country of caudillos [bosses] and more a country of institutions”—albeit nondemocratic institutions, run by Raulista technocrats. Of these institutions, Raúl’s military, the FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias), will remain the central organ of the government and, as Cuba’s uber-corporation, maintain its own monopoly on the principal sectors of the island’s economy.

The hegemony of the army is one safeguard arranged by Fidel and Raúl Castro to ensure that Cuba does not follow in the footsteps of the Eastern-bloc countries that leapt to freedom with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the early 1990s, Fidel Castro blamed perestroika and glasnost for the collapse of Cuba’s patron, the Soviet Union. To avert such a possibility, Cuba put stifling limits on Internet access and fortified its state-of-the-art snitch system. Hence, no one at the Pentagon believes that Cuba will be the next Egypt or Tunisia.

Telenovela, Castro-style

Icy tensions and irreconcilable divisions go deep within Cuba’s ruling family. More often than not, says Juan Juan Almeida, Deborah Castro Espín backs her hard-line brother, Alejandro, who’s a colonel and their father’s right-hand man. Their sisters, Mariela and Nilsita, however, lean toward reform. One source of simmering fury earlier this year was the arrest of Nilsita’s common-law husband, Julio Cesar Díaz Garrandés, during Raúl’s campaign against corruption—an arrest that Juan Juan believes was ordered by Nilsita’s own brother, Alejandro, with her brother-in-law López-Callejas’s assent. “So it’s truly a family soap opera,” says Juan Juan.

High drama appears to be the birthright of 48-year-old Nilsita Castro. She was, after all, named for her mother’s sister, Nilsa Espín, whose life and death were the stuff of a bel canto opera.

A delicately strung, zealous revolutionary, the wealthy Nilsa Espín married a fellow ideologue, Rafael Rivero, who came from a far humbler background. Nilsa would become a fearless, audacious guerrilla and a founding member of the 26th of July Movement. Her husband, equally zealous, attained the rank of captain. After the Castros took power, the couple spearheaded a “revolutionary reeducation” program. Rafael Rivero became a crucial liaison between the Soviets and the Cubans after the former installed nuclear missiles aimed at the U.S. in western Cuba. After the debacle of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and perhaps at the behest of the Soviets, as was rumored), Fidel fired the faithful Rivero in late 1965.

What followed was a surreal, Chekhovian moment. A devastated Rivero took his life, in his office, by shooting himself. Nilsa, who routinely carried a machine gun slung over her shoulder, discovered his body—and then and there took her own life. A more operatic account has her running into brother-in-law Raúl’s office in a fit of fury and despair, then shooting herself in front of him.

Nilsa’s namesake, Raúl’s daughter Nilsita, is regarded as the most simpática Castro on the island. Alas, friends say that she has inherited her father’s drinking problem. Stay tuned ....

Nevertheless, the Castro brothers are nothing if not realists, and both have voiced concerns about “a generational problem,” lurking now and when they leave the scene. Raúl has even instituted term limits in some cases, including for himself—an appreciated reform, but one that doubles as a joke for the ruling octogenarians.

Certainly both Raúl and Fidel have looked beyond their graves. Over the past five years, the senior level in every segment of the Cuban government and armed forces has been purged of those viewed as insufficiently loyal to the revolution or the brothers; in their places are men—and a few women—who move, think, and breathe in lockstep with Raúl Castro and his inner circle of army generals.

IN THE POLITICAL FIRMAMENT of today’s Cuba, the most powerful man—after the Castro brothers—is Ramiro Valdés, 80. By 2010, Commander of the Revolution Valdés had secured appointments to the Council of State, the Council of Ministers, and the Politburo of the Communist Party of Cuba—every power sector of the Cuban government.

Remarkably, Valdés had tangled with Raúl Castro in 1986 and been expelled from power. Valdés spent his exile studying and mastering the new Internet technologies. Ten years later, he became president of Grupo de la Electrónica. “He was carving a niche for himself, and now he is Cuba’s telecom CEO,” said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence official who defected in 1994. “He is the only one ever to be pushed out who has made a comeback—and to the very top.”

Valdés’s resurrection owes much to his status as the only living guerrilla fighter—other than Fidel and Raúl—with a trifecta of revolutionary bona fides: he fought in the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, sailed on the Granma in 1956, and fought with the rebels in the Sierra Maestra.

For the past two years, Valdés has been commuting to Caracas, overseeing changes to Venezuela’s military, media controls, and all telecommunications, including the Internet. He has seen to it that “revolutionary” Cubans are laced throughout the highest levels of Hugo Chavez’s government and inner circle, with a keen eye on the upcoming presidential election. Chávez, who is gravely ill, provides Cuba with an astounding 115,000 barrels of oil a day, gratis, in appreciation of his friendship with Fidel, prompting pundits to dub his homeland “Venecuba.” But should Chávez die sooner rather than later, it will be up to Valdés to ensure that the oil keeps flowing in a post-Chávez world.

Valdés is perfectly positioned to assume power in a post-Castro era—but for one obstacle. “When he ran the Ministry of the Interior, he was ruthless,” says Amuchastegui, a political analyst for CubaNews, in Miami. “And he will never live this down.”

Prized for his cunning, Valdés was the architect of the much-feared G2, the original revolutionary political police force, charged with rooting out counterrevolutionaries. In 1961, he orchestrated the first mass roundup of gays in Havana after declaring homosexuality to be “contrary to revolutionary morality.” During the 1960s and ’70s, those deemed to be opponents of the revolution—nonconformists; clergy; hippies; some of the leading lights of Cuban culture, from writer Virgilio Piñera and singer Pablo Milanés to the man who is now Havana’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega—were all incarcerated. Valdés has no shortage of enemies.

Valdés has another strike against him: his son Ramiro fled into exile over a decade ago and lives in Miami today, where he is married to a Telemundo news producer. Another son, Agustín, lives in Madrid. These days, however, the flight of Cuba’s youth to La Yuma (the U.S.) has become commonplace—even among some of the most high-cachet revolution families. (The daughter of honcho Marino Murillo, Glenda, 24, is simply the latest to have surfaced—in Tampa in August.)

Valdés will be teamed with General Leopoldo Cintra Frías, who was promoted last year to run the army. At 71, Cintra Frías is a mere sapling, the youngest among the top movers and shakers. A combat commander during Cuba’s incursion into Angola in the 1980s, Polo, as he is called, is dependable and loyal. Most crucially, he eschews the limelight—a prerequisite with the Castro brothers, who do not tolerate showboating. He will be a player who runs the army for as long as he wants.

General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, 73, known as Furry, is also an adroit player behind the scenes. He has reigned as Cuba’s preeminent spymaster, running the Ministry of the Interior, since the late 1980s, and shares history with the Castro brothers back to the 1950s. As the keeper of state secrets, Furry is not easily replaceable. The triumvirate of Valdés, Furry, and Cintra Frías will continue to carry the torch of the Castros and their revolution—as it is also their raison d’être.


A younger generation—the 50-plus crowd—is being groomed by Raúl Castro. It includes Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 52, who was appointed to the prestigious Council of Ministers in March and also elevated to “adviser” to Raúl; and Marino Murillo, a stocky 51-year-old who is Raúl’s designated economic czar and likewise won a slot on the Council of Ministers. It was Murillo who made the chilly announcement during Pope Benedict’s visit that “in Cuba, there will not be political reform.” Lázaro Expósito Canto, the 57-year-old party chief in Santiago, and Major General Onelio Aguilera Bermúdez, 59, commander of the eastern army of the far and a member of the Central Committee, have also improved their standing in the past year. On a lower ledge of power are Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, 54, and technocrat Manuel Marrero Cruz, 49, who heads up the lucrative Ministry of Tourism, which operates hand-in-glove with the army.


Ricardo Alarcón, the 75-year-old head of the National Assembly, has devoted his entire adult life to serving the Castro revolution and would seem a likely candidate for a continued role. But last spring, his longtime right-hand man, the gregarious Miguel Alvarez, along with his wife, was arrested in March in a scandal that has captivated Cuba’s elites—those insiders still known by the old Soviet term nomenklatura. All eyes are now on Alarcón, because in Cuba, the downfall of a close subordinate often spells the end for his superior (although not a word has come from the government about Alvarez’s sudden desgracia). Indeed, a new vice president, Ana María Mari Machado, was named in July. And should Alarcón be taken out, after almost 60 years of service to the revolution, his would be a fate as stunning as that of Carlos Lage, the former economic czar and vice president of the Council of State who was forced out in a 2009 purge along with then-Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque—and dozens of other Fidelistas, who were promptly replaced with Raulistas. Both Lage and Pérez Roque were compelled to write Stalinistic mea culpas; their less fortunate colleagues were jailed.


Certain to trigger a collective heart attack in Miami are the numerous Castro relations scattered throughout the government’s ministries and biding their time. While some Castroistos are pragmatists or moderate progressives, those in the more senior slots are hard-liners.

The family-legacy factor is strongest among Raúl’s clan. Topping the heap is Raúl’s handsome six-foot son and heir, Alejandro Castro Espín, a 47-year-old colonel in the Ministry of the Interior, who wears two hats: chief of intelligence collection and liaison to Cuba’s vital ally—China. Trained as an engineer with a degree in international relations, he fought in Cuba’s incursion in Angola in the mid-1980s and returned having lost one eye (from a noncombat accident), garnering the nickname El Tuerto (The One-Eyed Guy). From time to time, he writes earnest, turgid pieces in Cuba’s government-controlled media; in 2009 he published his book, El Imperio del Terror (The Empire of Terror), a screed about U.S. power in the region. He now works directly with his father and has recently raised his public profile, inspiring Yoani Sanchez, Havana’s famous dissident blogger, to opine: “The dauphin [in North Korea] is named Kim Jong Un; perhaps soon they will communicate to us that over here ours will be Alejandro Castro Espín.”

Next in line is Raúl’s son-in-law, Colonel Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas (married to Raúl’s eldest daughter, Deborah), who is chief executive officer of gaesa, the business arm and cash cow of the Cuban army. The clout and prestige of López-Callejas (whose father, a division general, headed the Cuban Defense Information Study Center) cannot be overstated. Frank Mora, now at the Pentagon, notes, “There are higher-ranking generals in the army, but few come close to having his influence. He is the most important entrepreneur in the army.” He will likely be promoted to general within the year.

The most interesting and colorful Castro is Raúl’s daughter Mariela Castro Espín, 50, who in 2007 stepped into the roles of her late mother, Vilma Espín, both as Cuba’s unofficial first lady and as head of the Federation of Cuban Women. A crusader for gay, lesbian, and transgender rights, she leads the National Center for Sex Education and has single-handedly turned Havana into the San Francisco of the Caribbean.

The family rebel, Mariela leans toward a progressive liberalism and has a decidedly bohemian lifestyle. She is married to an Italian businessman with whom she has two children; she also has a daughter from a previous liaison with a Chilean. She has the perspective of a well-traveled intellectual, and she’s the favorite among Cuba’s progressives and intelligentsia. Her father once complained, “Mariela brought perestroika into my home!”

Yet she generally toes Dad’s political line. During a visit to the U.S. in May, she likened hard-line exiles to the Mafia, in comments that infuriated the powers-that-be in Miami and surprised and irritated moderates. Mariela’s campaign to legalize same-sex unions has also put her at odds with Cuba’s Catholic Church.

Raúl’s outspoken daughter has also advocated repealing Cuba’s detested  (and expensive) travel and emigration laws. “I think we should grant permission to all those who want to leave,” she told La Vanguardia, a Spanish newspaper, in 2008, throwing down a truly revolutionary challenge to the politburo muckety-mucks—who recently indicated they will consider loosening exit restrictions.

Raúl’s eldest daughter, Deborah Castro Espín, 52, maintains a far lower profile but works as an adviser to the minister of education. She and husband López-Callejas have been long estranged, but never divorced, borrowing a page from her own parents, who lived apart the last 30 years of their marriage. Deborah’s 28-year-old son, Raúl Guillermo, is his grandfather’s personal favorite. Raúl Guillermo was promoted to major in his early 20s and charged with supervising the Cuban equivalent of the Secret Service. He was also given a singularly important job: insuring the personal security of Grandpa Raúl.

As all Castro-family matters are regarded as state secrets, the account of the 47-year-old dissident Juan Juan Almeida affords a priceless glimpse of life within the Castro clan. Juan Juan’s father, General Juan Almeida Bosque, was an iconic hero of the revolution, with the same Castro bona fides as Ramiro Valdés. During the 1990s, Juan Juan began to have profound doubts about the revolution—doubts that landed him in jail nine times beginning in 2003. After a protracted hunger strike and the intercession of the Catholic Church, he was allowed to leave the country in 2010.

But from the age of 8 until 14, owing to his father’s close relationship with Raúl Castro, Juan Juan had lived with Raúl’s family in their sprawling seventh-floor apartment in Nuevo Vedado. During those years, Juan Juan said, he witnessed irrationality and brutality in both father and son. “Alejandro is the most powerful man in Cuba today because he is his father’s gatekeeper,” said Juan Juan, who paused to add: “He is also bipolar.”

Juan Juan said he believes that Raúl’s favorite grandson/bodyguard, Raúl “Raulito” Guillermo, has a bright political future simply because his grandfather adores him. He is the glue between the estranged spouses Deborah and López-Callejas. “Raulito was born with one extra finger,” he said, “so they operated on him, and [Grandpa] Raúl overprotected him. Raulito as a boy was a little crazy and had a lot of problems … In reality, it is not the grandson who is protecting the grandfather,” said Juan Juan, “rather the grandfather who is always protecting his grandson.” Raulito is also his father’s political life-insurance policy: “Raúl Castro knows that if he gets rid of Luis Alberto [López-Callejas], he is going to lose that child, because Raulito adores his father, not his mother.”


While Raúl’s children have certainly benefited from nepotism, Fidel’s brood—almost a dozen—have generally sidestepped political or military careers. The one relative exception is Fidel’s son, Antonio, 41, an affable orthopedic surgeon who heads up Cuba’s baseball federation—baseball being the national obsession, trumping politics. In 1993, when I asked Fidel Castro how many children he had, his response, delivered with a smile, was “casi una tribu”—almost a tribe. He was not kidding. Along with his son from his first marriage, to Myrta Díaz-Balart, there are his five boys with Dalia Soto del Valle—whom Fidel married long after all five sons were born (just as Fidel and Raúl’s father married their mother years after she had borne and raised their seven children).

The ruling couple bizarrely gave all their boys names beginning with A; three bear variations on the name Alejandro—Fidel’s nom de guerre during the revolution. Castro has fathered at least five other children, the offspring of several infatuations, who included the wife of a senior government trade official. His two daughters, Alina Fernández and Francisca “Panchita” Pupo (both born illegitimate), have opted to live in exile in Miami.

Curiously, none of Fidel’s children share their father’s political ambitions. While not an effusively affectionate father, Fidel met his obligations and kept an eye—however distant and roving—on his ever-growing clan. But, unlike Raúl, he does not put up with ostentatious displays of privilege. Dismissing his eldest son, Fidelito, from his post as head of the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission, he said: “He was fired for incompetence. We don’t have a monarchy here.” On another occasion, he turned his fury on son Alejandro, who is often found on Havana’s upscale party scene, along with his brother, Alex, a photographer known for his shaved head and ample girth. In the late 1990s, Fidel discovered that Alejandro had accepted an invitation from European friends to stay in a hotel in tony Varadero, when hotels were off-limits to Cuban citizens. Castro had the hotel’s manager fired, and father and son stopped speaking for a period.

One Castro in-law, Marcos Portal, 68, the former minister of Basic Industries, has reemerged after a 2004 tumble that found him expelled from the Cuban Communist Party. His fall from grace was explained at the time in Granma, the party’s official newspaper, as stemming from Portal’s “self-sufficiency [and] undervaluing the advice of other experienced colleagues.”Insiders say, however, that Portal’s expulsion stemmed from a confrontation with Fidel over the urgent need for economic reforms. “He was a brilliant guy—one of the brightest in the government,” says Amuchastegui, “but if you are ever going to [try to] convince Fidel that he was wrong, you will suffer. And he did.”

Portal, however, is closer to Raúl, who is more sympathetic to his economic ideas and admires his business acumen. Portal also bears the family imprimatur: his wife, Tania Fraga Castro, a biotechnology specialist and an official in the Ministry of Health, is the daughter of the late Angela Castro.

Although Raúl Castro was willing to be his brother’s No. 2 for decades, his children far outstrip Fidel’s brood in sheer political credentials and clout. Still, Raúl’s kin will have to forge partnerships with the army, the party, the politburo, and, most notably, with the three historicos who have watched the backs of Raúl and Fidel since 1959. While Alejandro Castro Espín, his sister Mariela, and López-Callejas are family, they don’t command the respect of the all-powerful army as do Cintra Frías, Colomé Ibarra, and Valdés. And as long as the U.S. and Cuba continue their Cold War mambo, the army will remain at the center of power.

That said, the current No. 3, Ramiro Valdés, would still be wise to glance backward now and then. Nearly all of his predecessors, going back decades—including such marquee names as the handsome Ideology Czar Carlos Aldana, Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, and Carlos Lage—ended their high-flying political careers and years of service to the revolution in desgracia. In the Castro dynasty, only family members get a lifetime guarantee (and even they have limits).

Or as they say in Havana: beware the head who wears the crown of No. 3.

This article was adapted in part from Without Fidel, Ann Louise Bardach’s fourth book about Cuba. An updated Spanish edition, Sin Fidel, was published in September.

Waiting in the Wings

An interactive guide to the line of succession in Cuba