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Cuba: Raúl Castro tightens his grip

perez_roque-carlos_lage.jpgRaúl Castro does not want discussions and debates, and even less, voices raised against him. He wants his government to be based on results. He needs absolutes.

(From Montevideo) PERIODIC PURGES ARE a registered trademark of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. In Cuba, as has already happened in the past, various government officials are disappearing from the hard front line with the stroke of a pen and terse official decrees. If it were a democratic government, some would even say that we are witnessing a soft coup d’état. An assault on those in power, without firing a single shot.

President Raúl Castro’s profound restructuring of the Cuban government allows him to tighten his grip on the island’s government, by gathering a team of his own composed of trusted soldiers and men from the Communist Party, and removing key figures inherited from his brother Fidel. There are now a total of ten generals, Raúl included, in the government’s top ranks, composed of more old men. Indeed, any self-respecting dictatorship must have them. Raúl left behind 13 of the 28 ministers who belonged to the executive when he assumed provisional control of the government in 2006 due to Fidel’s failing health.

The general and younger of the Castro brothers will govern Cuban society the same way that he ran the armed forces and his successful businesses for fifty years: with an iron fist. He does not want discussions and debates, and even less, voices raised against him. He wants his government to be based on results. He needs absolutes. President Raúl Castro believes that the problem lies in the disorder, the lack of a working culture and the robbery of the Cubans. He wants discipline and unanimities, but not freedom and democracy. For him, the most important things are those that allow for the crisis facing the island to be overcome.

Raúl Castro has eliminated egalitarianism and the salary cap that prevailed for decades, and handed over idle lands in usufruct to the peasants. He is trying to impose a policy of control, austerity and efficiency throughout the entire island, with an administrative structure originally designed for businesses dependent on the armed forces, which he ran, starting with the triumph of the revolution in 1959, up until he took over the helm of the island.

THE BUSINESS SOLDIER’S NETWORK

The armed forces’ participation in the economy began in 1986, when the Soviet Union was developing President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. And so Raúl put forth a Business Improvement System to make the state’s military industries more efficient, among them rifle, munitions and uniform factories. But in 1989, as the fall of the communist bloc became more and more imminent, the then minister and number two of the regime pushed for business creation in order to generate currency in light of the end of Moscow’s subsidies. “Active generals and some retired officials run at least 800 big and small businesses, running the gamut from sugar refineries to hotels, oil companies and steel factories”

The plan consisted of training high army officials to be businessmen, even having them study in international business schools. As such, the soldiers began to grasp the meanings of terms like competitiveness, efficiency and productivity.

According to official figures, Cuban soldiers control at least 32 percent of the businesses and produce about 64 percent of the currency that enters the country.

Active generals and some retired officials run at least 800 big and small businesses, running the gamut from sugar refineries to hotels, oil companies and steel factories.

According to the officially published statistics, out of the hundreds of companies in this system, barely seven percent recorded losses, compared with the rest of the state-run businesses, which had very high percentages. Corruption, although it does indeed exist among those in uniform, is, due to the benefits that soldiers receive, less rampant than in other sectors of society, where people will resort to anything in order to make ends meet.

THE SOLDIERS’ LOYALTY

While Raúl was in charge of the Department of the Armed Forces, the Business Administration Group, which makes up the network of the regime’s businesses, was under his strict control.

“At the Cuban president’s behest, more than half of the government members were substituted in July 2006, when he assumed provisional power due to Fidel’s sickness”The general Julio Casas Regueiro, first vice-minister at the time, as well as the first in line to Raúl’s post, and his confidant, was placed at the head of the Business Administration Group’s executive council. But behind him, as general director with executive power, was the older Luis Alberto Rodríguez, married to Déborah Castro Espín and as such, son-in-law of the regime’s number two man. What’s more, Rodríguez had his office on the fourth flour of the Department of Defense’s building, and was also the chief of the Fifth Section of the Department of the Armed Forces, dealing with the economic, financial and accounting activity of Cuba’s armed forces. These are the experiences that the former chief of the armed forces now wants to bring to all of Cuban society.

Raúl knows that, for now, he can count on the soldiers’ loyalty. The most widely talked about desertion was the one lead by the general Rafael del Pino in 1997, a man who played a prominent role in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, led by the United States. In 1989, the general Arnaldo Ochoa, his assistant captain Jorge Martínez, the colonel Antonio de la Guardia and his subordinate the older Amado Padrón, were executed by firing squad near Baracoa beach, west of Havana, while the general Patricio de la Guardia was sentenced to thirty years in prison, after being accused of treason. The infamous case provoked uneasiness in some sectors of the armed forces, even though it did not translate into either disobedience or conspiracies against the Castro brothers’ regime.

However, for the brigadier general Rafael del Pino, the soldiers’ ability to manage the economy is a myth. In order to talk about the ability to manage we must talk about results, and in an open economy they can be measured with profit, an increase in the value of stocks, etc. One of the most important parameters has always been the workforce and the management of capital investments. In the Castrist economy, the soldiers have an enslaved workforce at their disposition, and as investors, they use unscrupulous foreigners who always provide all of the capital in order to obtain a minority participation. These are very advantageous conditions for the soldiers-turned-economic managers, and in spite of this, they fail. If they are as good as the idea that some want to sell to us, why do they fail? the soldier, who was exiled to the United States, said in an interview.

AMBITION LED TO THE DOWNFALL OF LAGE AND PÉREZ ROQUE

At the Cuban president’s behest, more than half of the government members were substituted in July 2006, when he assumed provisional power due to Fidel’s sickness. “Lage and Pérez Roque, who had been waiting many years for the time to come for their generation to gain power, committed the grave mistake of declaring that Cuba had two presidents, Fidel and Hugo Chávez”

In the largest removal of the half-century old revolution, Raúl Castro dismissed twelve high ranking officials, with the replacements of Carlos Lage, Secretary of the Department of Council – a type of cabinet leader – and the chancellor Felipe Pérez Roque, two of Fidel’s trusted men, standing out.

The government’s greatest incision, carried out by Raúl a year after assuming the presidency, affected the economic group which, headed by Lage and commissioned by Fidel, designed the minimal liberalization reforms enacted during the economic crisis of the 90s that followed the fall of the socialist bloc.

Fifty seven year old Lage’s post goes to José Ricardo Guerra, Raúl’s secretary when the latter was the Secretary of Defense. Meanwhile, the 51 year old former ambassador to the UN and vice-chancellor Bruno Rodríguez, the son of Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, a Marxist economist and the regime’s number three man until his death in 1997, will take over for 44 year old Pérez Roque, whom Fidel had taken under his wing at a young age, and who was nicknamed the last fidelist taliban on the streets of Havana.

In December of 2005, Lage and Pérez Roque, two hopeful successors that had been waiting many years for the time to come for their generation to gain power, committed the grave mistake of declaring that Cuba had two presidents – Fidel and Hugo Chávez -, “Following an initial period of silence, those who fell out of favor resigned from the posts that they had still not been fired from, as a consequence of considering the criticism against them just” and that the revolution was willing to sacrifice its sovereignty and flag in association with Venezuela, which was vital because of its gas supply. It was vox populi in Raúl’s close circle that the aforementioned never forgave them.

Regardless, the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, stated that two high leaders affected by the restructuring of the government were dismissed for ambitions and playing a shameful role, in an implicit reference to Lage and Pérez Roque, although without mentioning their names.

The honey of power for which they had known no sacrifice awoke in them ambitions that led them to a shameful role. The external enemy was filled with illusions for them, Castro wrote in an article, referencing the two most mentioned by the international press. Neither of the two mentioned by the wire services as most affected spoke a word to express non-conformity. It was not an absence of personal value at all. The reason was another, said Castro in one of his editorials in order to sacrifice and definitively bury his successors.

A REGIME OF FIDELITIES AND PURGES

Following an initial period of silence, those who fell out of favor, and coincidentally, just like what also happened during the other purges, resigned from the posts that they had still not been fired from, as a consequence of considering the criticism against them just, according to statements divulged by the official press.

In one of the two very brief missives addressed to President Raúl Castro, Lage announced his resignation and attributed it to recognizing the mistakes made and assuming the corresponding responsibility. In this manner, Lage left the powerful Political Bureau of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba and its Central Committee, in addition to giving up his duties as vice-president of the State Council and as a legislator.

You can be sure that my new job will be an opportunity to continue serving the revolution, and I will always, as I have been up to this day, be loyal to the Party, Fidel and you, wrote Lage. In turn, Pérez Roque wrote that he is resigning from his posts in the Communist Party, as a legislator and as a member of the State Council, and he also fully admitted the mistakes that were analyzed in a Political Bureau meeting.

Pérez Roque had substituted another hopeful successor to the commander, Roberto Robaina, a very popular figure both within and outside of the country’s borders known as Robertico, who was dismissed because of loyalty problems. After having been defenestrated, Robaina is now out of politics. The official decree that announced the appointment of Pérez Roque emphasized that he was familiar like few with Fidel’s ideas and school of thought and highlighted his maturity, his personal integrity that made him a perfect fit for the post of chancellor until he fell out of favor.

Something similar happened to Carlos Aldana Escalante, the powerful chief of the Ideological Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, who had become the regime’s number three man. In October of 1992, he was accused of shady financial deals and was removed. They did not send him to jail; instead, they sentenced him to silence and forced him to accept an insignificant position in the armed forces, some 400 kilometers from the Cuban capital. The list of purges during the past half-century goes on and on.

RAÚL’S LEADERSHIP

The public appearance of discrepancies between the two men, reflected in some of the comments that Fidel – who has distanced himself from or questioned posititons taken by Raúl – has made to the press, are a fact. “Raúl Castro will have to wait until the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba to have total control of the only party as prime minister” As such, getting beyond Fidel Castro’s statements, which have a tendency to paint the regime as being monolithic and united, it is clear that the purges that affected the commander’s close circle consolidate Raúl’s power after taking over for his sick brother, and will militarize Cuban society and attempt to make the economy more productive. Raúl Castro wants things done and he doesn’t care how they get done. The president is now going to place an emphasis on food production in order to pacify the society on the island, which is disillusioned and has not seen any real change in its daily life. Various economists in the regime’s own ranks are beginning to speak out about the urgency of doing away with the state’s total control over the economy, in order to make way for cooperative and private players in some non-strategic sectors.

Although nobody has it down to an exact science, there will be a new chapter in the Raulist agenda of gradual top to bottom change – like in China and Vietnam -, as long as that change is politically controllable. For the first time in half a century of singular power, Raúl is beginning to spread his wings and grow in importance, after being the regime’s eternal second man. Now he will have to wait until the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba next October to have total control of the only party as prime minister, like he already has over the armed forces, and finally leave half a century of Fidelismo behind.

In principal, this restructuring will not lead to democratic changes. They represent an attempt by the regime to realign itself with the goal of keeping the power in its hands. There will be more centralization with a team of loyal and unconditional leaders. As such, aside from economic changes –which will be able to come in the short and medium term– the regime’s politics will not be one of a transition to democracy. For now, Castro’s regime will continue to be a dictatorship.