COHA: The Cuban Who Won’t Be in Trinidad

  • Raúl Castro’s Cuban shuffle: a cause for widespread speculation
  • Havana upstages Washington in the ‘change’ stakes, as Obama lamentably opts for minimal reforms
  • Rather than a roar, Washington comes forth with a whimper when it comes to a new Cuba policy
  • Two once highly regarded heir-apparents summarily dismissed last month
  • Raúl reinforces his position by strengthening cabinet with military cronies
  • An ideological shift or a streamlining of bureaucracy?
  • A fallen Mexican foreign minister comes up with a likely tall tale that claims that dismissed Cuban officials allegedly plotted with Hugo Chávez to oust Raúl

On March 2, Raúl Castro shocked the international community by dismissing Felipe Pérez Roque and Carlos Lage, two of the most highly regarded officials in his government. This action comes as a sign that he is intent on reforming the troubled administration he inherited from his brother Fidel in February 2008. Raúl’s actions compare favorably to the moves made by the Obama administration in Washington in the run-up to this weekend’s Summit of the Americas. While the Cuban leader has demonstrated flexibility and emerged as a harbinger of change, Obama has instead taken the most conservative approach possible towards modifying the U.S.-Cuban relationship, by calling for unadventurous legislation on Monday, April 13. It went no further than merely revoking provisions implemented by President Bush as an act of vindication by the White House that restricted travel and remittances for Cuban Americans. Havana is advancing the prospects for constructive engagement while Washington shows little sign of budging beyond its minimalist policy, a fact which may be hard for Obama to justify when he arrives in Trinidad and Tobago on Friday.

While Raúl Castro ousted and transferred over a dozen civil servants and ranking officials, many insiders were visibly puzzled by Pérez Roque and Lage’s dismissals due to their longstanding preeminence within the government and by the effortless manner that the two tribunes had fallen on their swords. In fact, it was widely believed that Lage and Pérez Roque were on the fast track to be the next generation of Havana leaders. Perhaps in order to guarantee the shakeup’s legitimacy, Fidel Castro publicly embraced his brother’s realignment of leadership, claiming that Pérez Roque and Lage had been seduced by the ‘honey of power.’ After such a significant shift, analysts are still gauging whether Raúl is streamlining the island’s bureaucracy, or if a more serious ideological shift is in the making.

In one of the first times since assuming the presidency in 2008, Raúl displayed a strong sense of institutional favoritism by notably shifting the special status of the Cuban civilian bureaucracy in favor of his own military comrades from various sections of the armed forces. Political analysts are discreetly striving to determine why Raul Castro decided to shake up his cabinet at this specific point in time. Moreover, many observers are wondering in which direction the Cuban government will head once the Castro brothers face their inevitable mortality. Because Raúl’s strategy has been shrouded in ambiguity; the situation has been left open to external speculation and internal buzz on the island, with a slew of hypotheses filling the firmament.

The Two Honeysucklers
Using almost identical language, Felipe Pérez Roque and Carlos Lage submitted letters of apology to the Cuban government after their respective dismissals were registered. Pérez Roque stated that, ‘I fully recognize that I committed errors…I assume my total responsibility for them.’ Lage, in his resignation letter, said that, ‘I recognize the errors committed and assume responsibility.’ Despite the similar expressions of regret, the paths that led these two politicians to their personal black holes and eventual expulsions may have been far from analogous.

Pérez Roque, the former foreign minister, represented the next generation of the Fidelist movement. The 43-year-old diplomat was one of Cuba’s youngest officials, and the first member of Fidel Castro’s cabinet to be born after the 1959 revolution. After enthusiastically leading the government-sponsored university youth organization, Pérez Roque became Fidel’s personal secretary and protégé. Before Raúl took over the helm in Havana, many outside observers believed that Pérez Roque had been selected to be Cuba’s next dynastic leader. He has now been replaced by former UN Ambassador Bruno Rodriguez, one of Cuba’s more sophisticated diplomats.

Once Raúl assumed the presidency, many perceived the relatively moderate Carlos Lage to be the front-runner for the leadership position. Lage, the 57 year old former cabinet secretary and vice president, was one of the Cuba’s saviors during the 1990s, when the island suffered the economic consequences of the demise of the Soviet Union. From 1990 to 1993, Cuba’s GDP fell nearly 35%. During the ‘Special Period,’ Lage helped Fidel implement a series of liberalizing reforms that opened Cuba up to private foreign investment and allowed some farmers to sell their surplus crops in small private-sector markets. From 1993 to 1996, access to these markets rose from 5% to 40% of the population. This policy, in addition to other reforms, helped Cuba’s GDP gain steadily from 1996. Now Lage has been replaced by Brigadier General Jose Amado Ricardo Guerra, a longtime confidant of Raúl in the defense ministry.

The similarities in the language in the letters of resignation seem to suggest that the two ousted leaders had collaborated with each other. Both Roque and Lage admitted that they had made mistakes of a sobering magnitude. However, the eerie similarities between the two statements also could signify that the apologies were written in the purposely self-humiliating form that was common in highly scripted communist regimes. What these two politicians did share was their close association with the old regime. Fidel acknowledged that he had been consulted about the dismissals before the final decisions had been made. He stated that neither of his former confidents had expressed any non-conforming challenges to the government, but that they had been seduced by power into aspiring to reach out to an ‘unworthy role.’ The meaning of this statement has not been clarified by Fidel or the Cuban government. However, Fidel might have sensed that even with his brother in charge of the island-state, his influence could be gradually slipping after a half-century of uninterrupted power.

An Ideological Shift or Simply Trimming the Fat?
Raúl’s realignment of the Cuban government in his own image could be one of the most significant political moves of his one year in office. For the first time since taking the presidency, he has been able to lay his official stamp on a government structure that he had inherited from his ailing older brother. If Raúl had been eagerly waiting to get rid of his brother’s men for some time, his chance came with his early March wholesale shuffle in the name of ‘studying the government’s current structure with the objective of gradually reducing its magnitude and increasing its effectiveness.’ There is a certain grandeur to this statement, as the bureaucracy, long noted for its inefficiency, had in fact became bloated even by Havana’s generous standards. When Raúl assumed the position, he pledged to tackle the problem of inefficiency in the government, particularly setting his sights on the puffed up ‘bureaucracy.’ During the first phase of this shuffle, he merged four ministries. In regards to hard core Fidelistas who might benefit from a continuous government reliance on the status quo, Castro dismissed or realigned over a dozen of them. In addition to Roque and Lage, an advisor to Fidel, Jose Miguel Miyar Barruecos, was removed from the powerful Council of State and transferred to a leadership role at the Science and Environment Ministry.

A few weeks after the shakeup, two vice presidents, Osmany Cienfuegos and Pedro Miret, were also removed from their positions. It is clear that in both of these cases, an attempt was being made to streamline the government; Raúl appears to be targeting aging officials who have developed close relationships with Fidel over the years, but have little else to commend them. Minet worked to bring Fidel out of Mexican exile in 1956 as well as fought alongside him throughout the revolution, while Cienfuegos is the surviving brother of one of Fidel’s most revered revolutionaries. Fidel claims that Minet and Cienfuegos were not dismissed but in fact retired due to health reasons. Nevertheless, without question, Raúl is gradually changing his government’s ideological content.

Raúl has made a number of diplomatic visits in the last few months throughout Latin America and the outside world, and even has paid a high level visit to Russia, sending a message that Cuba, in spite of its relatively small and weak market, is ready to become a commercial force once again in the international community. But in Cuba, personality often trumps ideology. Fidel’s revolution and his long reign were as much about him as they were about implementing communism on the island. If any of Fidel’s characteristics have rubbed off on his slightly younger brother, it is, for better or for worse, that ruling Cuba will require the help of the president’s closest and most loyal friends. And for the kind of advice and support he seeks, Raúl apparently has turned to his old military cronies.

One Last Military Maneuver
Raúl’s senior command has long had a powerful grasp on Cuban politics. During the Special Period which began in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) took control of many sectors of the economy to keep it afloat. While FAR’s increased involvement in the military-directed economy boosted employment throughout the island to a considerable degree, the army also significantly intervened in the regulation of such vital sectors as agriculture and tourism. According to the Cuba Transition Project, an anti-Castro research initiative housed at the University of Miami, Raúl’s armed forces benefited greatly from such a tactic, taking advantage of the revenue boost supplied by the expansion of tourism and the increased loyalty being manifested between the officers and the political hierarchy. Although it appears that FAR aided the economy during a period of harsh circumstances, the military’s actions during the Special Period were aimed primarily at strengthening its hold over the Cuban political process rather than directly helping the people.

While the government and the military have shared an intimate relationship since their common origin in the 1959 revolution, their bond has been particularly strengthened since the former Minister of Defense gained the nation’s highest political seat. Even before his promotion to the presidency, the Cuba Transition Project predicted in 2003 that Raúl would ride his institution’s loyalty because he is ‘evidently much more inclined than his brother to delegate authority and maintain genuinely collaborative relationships with his senior staff.’

While much of Fidel’s power was derived from his charismatic nature, Raúl lacked such a quality, causing him to rely on his ability to patiently work with his subordinates and advisors. What he lacks, according to his critics, in strength of personality or character, he may more than compensate through the legitimacy of the institutions he inherited or is presently thoroughly transforming. In his first major political move, Raúl has stayed consistent with the military cliché that the ‘best offense is a good defense’ by reinforcing his chain of command. If Raúl believed that Roque, Lage, or any other of Fidel’s men were perceived threats to his promises of positive change, then his recent actions of shuffling and dismissing some of the old guard will realign his regime and perpetuate his power. The question is whether there were legitimate threats that his administration had inherited, or were they leveled at his political standing.

Speculation of a Threat
The dismissals of Pérez Roque and Lage might have culled any threats to Raúl’s ideology, and this action might have even been his best defense against true threats to his regime. The Cuba Transition Project has suggested that pro-US leanings in Raúl’s inherited cabinet might create uncertainty within his government, resulting in a certain amount of friction. Pérez Roque and Lage have been suspected by some analysts of favoring the relaxing of the odium towards the US and its trade embargo.

Although the Castros have adamantly denounced this relic of Cold War diplomacy over the years, Raúl may be reluctant to frontally act on the bitter issue. After all, Cuba has gained considerable leverage from condemning the embargo since a report favoring a thaw regarding Cuba was issued by Senator Richard Lugar, denouncing the embargo as being a total failure and criticized it as being based on flawed logic. Pérez Roque or Lage might have been trying to push policy to end the embargo by moderately wooing Washington or making at least token reforms. Or, they could have been up to something of even greater gravity.

The Castañeda Point
This could have been what Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda was up to when he claimed that Pérez Roque and Lage were plotting the overthrow of Raúl Castro with the assistance of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. The latter supposedly sought the help of the Dominican Republic in this endeavor, which President Leonel Fernandez allegedly refused to provide. Speculation along these lines increased due to an ‘enigmatic’ statement by Fidel Castro, supposedly about the affair. In reference to the World Baseball Classic, Castro apparently thanked the Dominicans for participating, and then stated that ‘as good and young’ as they might be, they were no match for ‘Cuba’s seasoned all-stars.’ The allegedly ‘veiled message’ stays true in baseball terms, as the Dominican Republic was eliminated early, while the veteran Cuba team outlasted the young Venezuelans. Castañeda’s claims, when one keeps in mind the deep enmity the two dating back to when Castañeda was Mexico’s foreign minister and was in favor of demanding Castro to leave a conference he was attending in Monterrey, have drawn widespread skepticism and even ridicule.

These remarks were later described by the Mexican diplomat as ‘informed speculation’ at best. In defense of his claims, Castañeda sheepishly cites the fact that neither Pérez, Roque, nor Lage were given face-saving positions in the shuffle, but were instead forced to resign from any official government connection. Though the evidence of an aborted coup is very weak, Castañeda’s suspicions regarding Castro’s baseball quip, make for a very intriguing conspiracy theory—that is, if it is worthy to be taken the least bit seriously.

The Plight of the Cuban People: All Eyes on Raúl
Raúl Castro has found that he has big shoes to fill, and that it could be said that they are caked in the mud of economic instability. While some may argue that his responsibility lies in the safeguarding of his brother’s fifty-year legacy, the recently coronated but pragmatist leader must acknowledge that his loyalty now is to the people of Cuba, who, as he has publicly acknowledged, for too long have suffered the consequences of a crippled economy. When Raúl assumed the presidency in February of last year, he inherited the many issues that have plagued Cuba over the remaining years of Fidel’s rule. Cubans suffer from a weak economy, with existing dismal conditions being exacerbated by three hurricanes late last year and the more recent global economic crisis.

Nowhere is the economic downturn being felt harder than in the Cuban family, which is finding even a subsistence lifestyle increasingly difficult to secure. The government supplies workers with a monthly ration of 5 pounds of rice, a ½ liter of cooking oil, and the occasional allotment of beans, sugar, pork, or chicken. These rations feed the average Cuban family for ten days out of every month. For the rest of their food supplies, Cubans must look to deregulated markets that run on the convertible peso (CUC), a valuable financial instrument that is often hard to come by. Widespread corruption and internal exploitation of these markets is referred to on the island as Cuba’s ‘internal embargo.’ Raúl must also acknowledge the existence of a demographic crisis featuring a large and aging population that requires social services far beyond what the Cuban economy is able to accommodate at the present time.

Originally regarded by many as Fidel’s puppet, Raúl has shown flashes of individuality in his rule. The younger Castro is noticeably more pragmatic and less ideological than his brother. This was made visible during his first speech as president when he claimed that his reign will see an era of ‘structural changes’ and ‘big decisions.’ One year after permanently taking the helm, Raúl has accomplished relatively little in regard to the major changes he alluded to at the beginning of his tenure. This said, reforming Cuba will not be an easy task, as any candidate for change must first shake off the dust of fifty years of a Fidel-centered culture, whose roots run deep in a society in which 70% of the population was born during the Comandante’s rule. It must also be acknowledged that Raúl’s rule will be at odds with the constraints of time and nature, since he nears 80. While he seeks to display his own brand of politics, he must keep in mind that he cannot be the long-term solution for the island.

Raúl acknowledges that the Cuba he inherited from his brother will not be the Cuba of the future. As was predicted when the Comandante stepped down, no drastic changes are in store for the island, certainly not before Fidel Castro passes away. However, Raúl has already proven in one year of power that he is committed to relative change. He has changed the old guard, and he has helped Cuba become a much more active factor in hemispheric affairs.

In early April, Raúl met with U.S. lawmakers for the first time in his presidency. Castro deliberated with six members of the Congressional Black Caucus for four hours in what the Cuban government described as ‘a broad exchange of ideas on many topics, with emphasis on the future evolution of bilateral relations and economic ties after the arrival of a new U.S. administration.’ Reflecting on the meeting, U.S. lawmakers were impressed by Raúl’s composure and his apparent desire to cooperate. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) believes that Castro is ‘serious’ about instituting normalized relations between the two nations. Witnessing his brother’s recent diplomatic feat, Fidel Castro claimed that Cuba’s government is not as confrontational as the U.S. believes.

With regards to the coming large-scale change that inevitably is in store for Cuba, political analysts are questioning whether it will reflect a shift in ideology, a commitment to slimming the bureaucracy, or simply the self-preservation of Raúl’s power. To some degree, each ‘take’ may have worthy elements to it. Still, analysts up north believe that the pace and nature of change will be directly tied to changes in Washington’s Cuba policy as much as anything else. Castro did meet with US officials. Yet that event does not appear to be centered exclusively on relations with the U.S. For the time being, Castro is the one implementing the program of change which the Obama administration has claimed to be pursuing, while in Washington the president is in fact limiting himself to taking the most conservative steps he can get away with. Raúl still must dance his Cuban Shuffle, in Havana, where not only Washington policymakers will be sitting in the jury box.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Adam Bloom
April 14th, 2009
Word Count: 3200

Source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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