Raul, generals rule
With Fidel Castro ailing and his brother in control,
military officers in key posts are helping him govern Cuba.
But can they ensure stability?
Tribune foreign correspondent
José F. Sánchez
La Nueva Cuba
September 18, 2006
HAVANA -- The generals who are helping Raul Castro run Cuba are
not only veterans of the 1959 revolution but also survivors of
internal purges who control the island's vast intelligence operations
and helped resurrect Cuba's faltering economy.
proven loyalists to Castro, but analysts wonder whether divisions
and jealousies among the military brass could eventually threaten
the stability of a socialist system whose singular force , Fidel
Castro, appears unlikely to return to full strength after intestinal
The problems stem from various sources, including fallout from the
1989 execution of Cuba's most popular general, younger officers
eyeing their superiors' jobs and troop commanders chafing at the
privileges of colleagues managing lucrative businesses.
is talk of the military having potential tensions and divisions
that will surface once Fidel Castro dies," said Frank Mora,
a Cuba military expert at The National War College in Washington,
disagreements certainly exist, but at this moment of uncertainty
their common interests will trump whatever cleavages do exist,"
Mora said. "They feel they owe everything to the revolution."
The ailing Fidel
Castro failed to appear in public last week during the Non-Aligned
Movement summit in Havana. Acting as his stand-in, Raul Castro met
with world leaders and delivered a fiery speech on Friday that blamed
the U.S. for a plethora of global problems.
In the decades
before Fidel Castro's health crisis, Raul prepared for this moment
by placing allies in key economic and political positions while
building the 55,000-strong armed forces into Cuba's most powerful
and respected institution.
are on the Communist Party's 21-member Politburo, one of Cuba's
most important policymaking bodies.
Aside from Raul
Castro, the most prominent military leader is Gen. Abelardo Colome
Ibarra, the 66-year-old interior minister who controls police
and intelligence services.
A second top
general is Julio Casas Regueiro, head of a military-run holding
company called GAESA that manages much of Cuba's lucrative tourist
industry along with agriculture, import-export businesses, retail
stores and other enterprises.
Also on the
party's Politburo is Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, former chief
of the general staff of the armed forces and now Cuba's sugar minister
responsible for overhauling what was once the nation's most important
commanders, Gen. Ramon Espinosa Martin and Gen. Leopoldo Cintra
Frias, also sit on the Politburo, which is rounded out by veteran
officials such as National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon and
younger leaders like economic czar Carlos Lage Davila.
At the top of
the leadership pyramid, however, is Raul Castro, a collegial
yet exacting leader who has lived in his older brother's shadow
but also is his most trusted adviser and most valuable asset.
been the only true indispensable man in this revolution after Fidel,"
said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on Cuba who has written
a book detailing the relationship between Raul and Fidel Castro.
been the manager from the very beginning," he said. "He
compensates for all of Fidel's organizational weaknesses."
After the revolution's
triumph in 1959, Raul Castro used massive assistance from the Soviet
Union to transform a ragtag rebel army into one of the most formidable
military forces in Latin America.
At its peak,
Cuba's armed forces numbered about 250,000 troops. Its soldiers
and advisers were dispatched to buttress leftist regimes and insurgencies
from Nicaragua to Vietnam to Angola to Ethiopia.
also got high marks for its deft handling of the Cuban economy after
the Soviet Union's collapse. Absent several billion dollars a year
in Soviet subsidies, Cuba went into a tailspin and its armed forces
imploded in the early 1990s.
strength was cut sharply, tanks and other weapons were mothballed
because of a dearth of gasoline and spare parts, and soldiers say
there wasn't even enough food.
"The hunger was terrible," recalled one recruit who served
in the military in 1992 and 1993.
Raul Castro decided the armed forces had to develop their own income
sources outside the national budget, and have since become the primary
engine powering the economy, experts say.
Hans De Salas, a researcher at the University of Miami's Institute
for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the Cuban armed forces
have a hand in as much as 60 percent of the island's economy.
companies also provide lucrative jobs to many current and former
officers, giving them a powerful incentive to continue supporting
Cuba's single-party system.
Yet some Cubans
regard Raul Castro as cold and dogmatic, and they fear he will intensify
internal repression. This perception endures despite his reputation
among several Havana-based diplomats as a pragmatist who solicits
advice from others.
Some of the
bitterness toward Raul Castro dates back to the 1989 execution of
Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, one of the revolution's most decorated heroes.
The former commander
of Cuban forces in Angola and Ethiopia faced the firing squad for
drug trafficking. Raul Castro had argued for the death penalty,
saying anything less for Ochoa and his collaborators would set an
"ominous precedent for impunity."
believe the punishment exceeded the crime, especially in light of
Ochoa's exemplary military record. Others suggest the real reason
for Ochoa's execution was the Castros felt threatened by the popularity
of the young, charismatic general.
really awful," said an Angola war veteran who described Ochoa
as a "great man." "They made an example of him to
give a warning to others."
After the Ochoa
execution, Raul Castro created more enemies by taking over the
Interior Ministry, which runs Cuba's police force and domestic security
Interior Ministry officials were transferred to lesser posts or
purged during the takeover.
while U.S. officials are pledging support for opposition activists
and on Friday called on Raul Castro to submit to a referendum on
whether he should continue to govern Cuba, experts say the military
elite is loyal to Raul.
In a show of
unity, Raul Castro last month appointed Ramiro Valdes, a former
rival and guerrilla war commander, as Cuba's minister of information
dismissed as interior minister in 1985 under pressure from Raul
Castro and disappeared from the political scene until his rehabilitation.
there are dissidents among the high-ranking officers there is no
chance that any of them would come out for their own safety,"
said one Havana-based diplomat. "Most high officials are worried
about their positions and their lives."