Pink Slip for 10 Cuban Council Members

Raul Castro shakes up cabinet, his big brother backs ouster of proteges.

March 04, 2009, 12:23 PM

HAVANA, Cuba, March 4, —, 2009 -- Cuban President Raul Castro ousted 10 members of the Council of Ministers and made other key personnel changes this week after a disastrous first year in office that saw bureaucratic inertia, wild spikes in commodity prices and three hurricanes bury his inaugural promise to better administer the state-dominated economy and improve people's "spiritual and material lives."

The government billed the 22-person cabinet shuffle, which included the promotion of two military generals and mostly middle-age Communist Party cadre, as a step toward restructuring and gaining greater economic efficiency. The changes included combining four existing ministries into two

The shakeup followed the appointment of three senior officials, including another general and a revolutionary commander, as vice presidents of the Council of Ministers, along with a younger party cadre earlier this year. Half a dozen other ministers have met similar fates since Raul Castro officially took over from his brother Fidel Feb. 24, 2008.

The Cuban economy grew 4 percent last year, but the trade deficit jumped 70 percent on a 43 percent increase in imports, the government said. The balance of payments went from a $500 million surplus in 2007 to a more than $2 billion deficit. The budget deficit also increased significantly.

Raul Castro ended the year by admitting the troubles had slowed plans to overhaul the government and improve economic performance by providing more incentives for those who labor and fewer subsidies for those who do not.

Analysts said the new cabinet removed any doubt that Raul, not his brother, was in charge.

"For those who still had doubts, these changes demonstrate once and for all that Raul is the pilot, not co-pilot, of this plane," Rafael Hernandez, editor of the often critical Temas Magazine, said.

"The fundamental changes were in the economic realm, indicating the intention to carry out a new economic policy, in other words, reform," he said.

A Surprising Fall From the Grace

But those ousted this week also included Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 43, and the executive secretary of the cabinet, Carlos Lage, 57, both Fidel Castro proteges once believed headed for top leadership of the country.

Fidel Castro, in an article published Tuesday, blasted both men as "disgraceful" and charged they gave hope to Cuba's enemies.

"The sweet nectar of power for which they hadn't experienced any type of sacrifice awoke ambitions in them that led them to play out a disgraceful role," he wrote. "The enemy outside built up their hopes with them."

Many Cubans and foreign analysts were surprised by the fall from grace of two of the country's best known politicians and said they expected serious charges to be brought against them in the near future.

Castro resigned last year due to poor health but writes essays, receives visiting heads of state, consults with his brother and, of late, has been seen walking near his home in a rural area of Havana.

Raul had temporarily filled Fidel's shoes since he first underwent intestinal surgery in July 2006 from which he has never fully recovered.

Lage served as point man for post-Soviet economic reforms and oversaw the domestic economy before he was fired from the cabinet. He was replaced by a general who was Raul's secretary of the armed forces when he was defense minister. An up-and-coming young diplomat with extensive experience in the United States and Latin America, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla was named foreign minister.

Analysts said that, along with economic motives, Raul was replacing Fidel Castro ideologues with a less confrontational and more pragmatic cadre, including the new foreign minister, and eliminating Fidel's style of shadowing the government with a second one from his office and the Council of State.

Another man closely identified with Fidel Castro for decades, Secretary of the Council of State Miguel Miyar Barruecos, was sent packing to head up the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry.

Former protege Otto Rivera, who led the fight for the return of castaway Elian Gonzalez, was fired as vice president of the Council of Ministers for the Battle of Ideas, a special Castro program that grew out of the Elian Gonzalez saga (the custody and immigration battle over a little Cuban boy in 2000), and the position was abolished.

Calling All Competent Technocrats

Fidel Castro's personal secretary and a member of the Council of State, Carlos Valenciaga, who first announced to the world the iconic figure was ill, was recently sacked.

"The Raulista model is about placing competent technocrats, while the Fidelista model is more ideological-political," Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington, D.C., said.

Fidel Castro, in his essay Tuesday, called speculation he had much to do with the appointment of his cabinet, of which just a few remain, nonsense.

"I never proposed the majority of those replaced," he said. "I never dedicated my time to such matters."

He said he was consulted on all this weeks cabinet changes.

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