Raul Castro reaffirms grip on government of Cuba

Posted in Latin America | 05-Mar-09 | Author: Marc Lacey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Cuban President Raul Castro replaced several members of his cabinet, putting his stamp on the government a year after assuming power from his older brother Fidel.

After initially portraying himself as a reform-minded leader who intended to shake up Cuba's staid bureaucracy, Raúl Castro ended his first year as president last week without having achieved much in the way of major changes.

Cubans complained that he had talked a lot about transforming the system, but that he had done relatively little to improve their lives.

Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst who has watched Cuba for decades, said several days ago that "Raúl Castro may be showing signs of leadership fatigue" - a sentiment shared by other American analysts of Cuba.

Then, at the end of the midday news broadcast on state television on Monday, the 77-year-old Castro surprised everyone. The news anchor reported that the Council of State, the governing body that Castro controls, was ousting some of the government's most familiar officials, including Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and others with close ties to the former president, Castro's older brother Fidel. The council also stripped Vice President Carlos Lage of his position as cabinet secretary and merged various ministries.

The actions seemed to suggest that Castro agreed with those who argued that his first year in office had been disappointing.

"Raúl promised more than he delivered in his first year, and you can view these cabinet changes as an explicit acknowledgment of that by Raúl himself," said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

What the shuffling will mean in terms of policy changes or outreach to the Obama administration remains to be seen. Those who keep an eye on Cuba were trying to figure out who some of the new officials were.

"At least half of them, I don't know," said Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba during the Carter administration.

But what is already clear is that by firing some of his brother's closest aides, including some considered top candidates to lead in a post-Castro Cuba, Castro had engineered the biggest shake-up of the Cuban government in decades. When he came to office, Raúl Castro called on university students to "vigorously debate" Cuba's deficiencies, and he set into motion tens of thousands of discussion sessions across the island on how the 1959 revolution had steered off course.

He eased regulations that forbade most Cubans to purchase cellphones and other electronics and from visiting tourist hotels. He allowed more of those lucky few with private cars to become taxi drivers, and he began the process of permitting private farmers to work unused government land.

But there was no relaxation of travel restrictions, which many Cubans had anticipated. Citizens still cannot purchase houses and cars. He did not overhaul a dual-currency system that leaves most Cubans envying those who have access to foreign currency.

"After elevating popular expectations for liberalizing change in his inaugural address last February - and in earlier performances as provisional president - he has retreated," Latell wrote in a recent commentary on Castro's first year. "Perhaps he realized that he was playing with fire, as hard-line officials and his infirm brother all but certainly were telling him."

In a written statement published Tuesday on a government Web site, Fidel Castro, who is 82 and ailing, suggested that he was on board with his brother's overhaul and that some of those who were removed had been too focused on personal political ambitions.

"The honey of power, for which they had not sacrificed at all, awoke in them ambitions that led to an undignified role," he wrote, appearing to refer to Pérez Roque and Lage, who are probably the two best-known government officials in Cuba besides the Castro brothers.

But installing new people in office does not necessarily translate into significant political or social changes. Fidel Castro seemed to shrug off suggestions that Raúl was taking the government in a different direction, noting in his statement that he had been consulted on the restructuring.

One point Raúl Castro seemed to be making was that no one in Havana's elite had job security anymore. He also indicated he was not ready to cede power.

"He certainly surprised me," said Smith, now the director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "I'm certainly watching and waiting with interest."

Antonio Betancourt contributed reporting.