Obama touts Raúl Castro as a pragmatist with ‘revolutionary zeal’

·Chief Washington Correspondent

This story is part of a weeklong Yahoo series marking one year since the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba.

President Obama said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News that Cuban leader Raúl Castro is more a pragmatist than a revolutionary ideologue, someone who wants to improve relations with the United States before he and his brother Fidel leave the world stage.

Asked whether Raúl Castro is a revolutionary, a caretaker or a transformational leader, Obama sketched a biographical portrait of a complex and potentially conflicted man who has “gone through a bunch of stages” in his life.

“You’re talking about somebody in their 80s who has been in power alongside his brother since I was born,” Obama said. “I don’t think the man he was at 35 is the same person that he is at 85,” Obama said, describing Raúl Castro as “somebody who is very much committed to the existing regime, who is suspicious of full democracy.”

Still, Obama said, “I do see in him a big streak of pragmatism. In that sense, I don’t think he is an ideologue.”

But Raúl Castro is following the path blazed by China or Vietnam, of embracing limited market reforms “without letting go of the political reins,” Obama said.

“I think he’s going be cautious in how quickly he opens things up,” but he “recognizes the need for change” driven by an awareness of the weaknesses in his country’s economic and political system,” Obama said.

And while the White House plainly sees the U.S.-Cuba opening as a major legacy item for Obama, Obama himself suggested that it was even more important to Castro to “usher in those changes before he and his brother are gone.”

Castro “views himself as having the stature to move Cuban society in ways that a successor might not,” Obama said. “Obviously, nobody’s got better street cred when it comes to, you know, Cuban revolutionary zeal, than one of the original revolutionaries.”

On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama and Raúl Castro stunned the world by disclosing that they had held secret negotiations and were prepared to usher in a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations, starting with the resumption of full diplomatic ties. Embassies reopened in Havana and Washington, the United States removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the two sides took steps to increase travel and business opportunities.

Obama has undertaken many changes using his executive powers, and indicated in the interview that he would continue looking at ways to do so in 2016. But Obama needs Congress to roll back the centerpiece of America’s Cold War-era pressure on Cuba and lift the U.S. trade embargo.

Watch the full interview:

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