Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Cuba Cabinet Shuffle Isn't Surprising: Check Previous Postings. Castro Deals a Blow to Wishful Thinkers By Reasserting Power of Armed Forces

Cuban President Raúl Castro, facing one of the most serious economic times in the Caribbean island since the early 1990s, shuffled his cabinet yesterday. The wide-sweeping, ambitious cabinet reorganisation can be interpreted as a further step by the younger Castro to reasserting the power of the Armed Forces in his government while pursuing efficiency and pushing his brother's closest allies away.

Check our previous two Cuba postings (Cuba 2 and Cuba 3, published one or two days after the 50th anniversary of the Revolution.) There's been lots of wishful thinking seeking to present Raul Castro’s presidency and his recent reforms as a new chapter in the economy and political life of Cuba. The policies so far implemented (boosting access to mobile phones and hotels and giving out land to private farmers) will hardly make a difference in terms of economic life or political freedom for Cubans. Raul and the men who control Cuba are the men of the revolutionary generation. Vice Presidents Jose Ramón Machado Ventura and Abelardo Colomé are old-guard. Why would you expect a new departure from three men well into their 70s?

Although the whole reshuffle was expected, some of the specific changes were surprising. Longtime Fidel Castro loyalist Felipe Pérez Roque, foreign minister for 10 years, was ousted and replaced by his deputy -- showing Raúl is in full control of bureaucracy at the ministry. One change in the ministry's focus I might dare say is clearly a different attitude towards the U.S. embargo. Now that the U.S. is beginning to show some willingness to talk with the Cubans, the presence of Pérez Roque would be uncomfortable. We wonder what will happen next to diplomats in allied countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia.

In another important change, Vice President Carlos Lage was replaced as secretary of the council of ministers by an army general who was Raúl Castro's chief of staff at the defence ministry. However, he retained his most important post. Lage's departure from the council leaves the Cabinet in the hands of members of the armed forces. Says The Nuevo Herald: ''Cuban exile leaders in Miami fear that the dozen personnel moves announced on Cuban television's midday newscast after the sports and weather reports show Castro is closing ranks and consolidating power.´´

Fears justified. The political and economic scenario may be different within three to five years, but not even closer to the scenario painted by wishful thinkers who believe Cuba is moving towards more political openness, a Chinese-like economic system and less state intervention. While it is possible that maybe at that point there is going to be a new discussion in Cuba, it is unrealistic for now to think the final caretaker of the Revolution will change the premises of the Cuban economy and political system in the next 18 months to three years. There may be a business upturn five years from now, when the revolutionary generation had already stepped down or died, replaced by a generation mostly led by soldiers. The latter is the one that that is taking over Cuban politics this week. In my view, the military-led entrepreneurial revolution isn't that bad at all. It calls for efficiency and productivity, it does believe in private initiative (obviously restricted) but it is quite corrupt.

I say efficiency because the moves signal Raúl Castro is ready to run a leaner government. With the shuffle, the Foreign Trade, Foreign Investment, and Economic Cooperation Ministries will be merged. The Food Ministry and the Fishing Ministry will be combined too. ''Several of the people named to top posts are unknown technocrats, which shows Castro is trying to streamline the country's bureaucracy and put the best people forward,´´ the Nuevo Herald said in its report.

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