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Cuba's economic power shift strengthens Raul Castro's bid for change

A year after taking over as Cuba's president amid high expectations of change, Raul Castro continues to chart a careful course — with his older brother closely observing every move.

That was clearly in evidence last week when the knives came out in one of Cuba's biggest political purges in decades. Exactly what prompted it is open to wide speculation.

One thing is clear, however. The resulting shakeup in the Cuban government has strengthened the younger Castro as he moves to implement badly needed economic changes, as well as possible normalization with the United States, analysts say.

"This is indeed a triumph of the Raul faction," said Tim Ashby, a Miami-based lawyer who advises U.S. and international clients on political and business developments in Cuba. "They are the new face of Cuba."

Ever since Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006, analysts have noted a rift between "Fidelistas" and "Raulistas" over measures to revive the economy. Even before taking over as president last year Raul Castro, 77, spoke decisively of the urgent need for "conceptual and structural change," encouraging debate among workers, students and intellectuals.

But measures taken so far — allowing access to cell phones and computers, licensing of taxis and redistribution of idle state farmland — have been modest or out of reach of average Cubans. That has created tensions, with many Cubans growing frustrated over the slow pace of change.

It might also have led to last week's purge, which apparently ended the careers of two of Cuba's most prominent government figures, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and economic czar Carlos Lage.

In his defense, Raul Castro's room for maneuvering was curtailed by the global economic meltdown, as well as four devastating hurricanes last year.

Then there's the lingering influence of his more ideological and change-averse brother, Fidel Castro, 82, who has used his regular "reflections," published in the Cuban media, to chastise those who would race ahead with reforms or rush to embrace the new U.S. president.

Publicly the same

Last month, Raul Castro found himself awkwardly apologizing for some undiplomatic comments his brother published during an official state visit by Chile's President Michelle Bachelet.

"You know there are two Castros. We are not the same," he told Bachelet, according to diplomatic sources.

Except in private, Cuban officials do not like to draw attention to the differences between the two Castros. Perhaps for that reason the government sought to play down last Monday's announcement, which was tacked on to the midday news after the weather and sports.

But it was impossible to disguise the significance of the changes, involving a dozen key posts. Perez Roque, 44, had been foreign minister for almost 10 years, and previously was Fidel Castro's private assistant. Lage, 57, had steered the economy for 20 years, often representing the government at global meetings.

The prominence of Lage and Perez Roque might have contributed to their undoing. Both had been touted as successors to Fidel Castro.

The older Castro offered the only clue as to their transgressions, accusing both men of being seduced by "the honey of power" which "awoke in them ambitions that led them to an unworthy role." In separate letters published Thursday, the pair fell on their swords, apologizing for their "errors."

'The external enemy'

Fidel Castro made no specific accusation. "The external enemy was filled with illusions about them," he wrote, suggesting they might have tried to push the reform agenda too fast.

That's a concern Raul Castro likely shares, despite being more open to change. A keen student of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Raul Castro knows all too well the danger that competing egos and political currents could pose within the Communist Party.

The purge comes as the U.S. Congress is debating a softening of policy toward Cuba. Latin American countries also are prodding the Obama administration to drop a four-decades-old Cuba trade embargo.

"The people now in power are loyal to Raul. They are open to normalizing relations with the U.S. and view it as inevitable, but want to control the process so that change comes gradually," Ashby said.

The new team, including two generals and a number of younger faces, appears to cement Raul Castro's pragmatic advocacy of government efficiency and productivity.

Cuba's military controls vast areas of the Cuban economy, from tourist hotels to real estate ventures, and its senior ranks are sprinkled with business-minded officers, some of whom have studied abroad.

"These are trusted technocrats with management experience," said Brian Latell, a former Cuba analyst with the CIA who teaches at the University of Miami.

With his team in place, Raul Castro can now feel more comfortable, analysts say. But it's anyone's guess how quickly he plans to press home his advantage.

"I don't think it's over yet," Latell said. As long as Fidel Castro is alive "he still has influence."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

Cuba's economic power shift strengthens Raul Castro's bid for change 03/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 8, 2009 11:06pm]

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