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What Lies Behind the Cuban Purge

6 minute read
Tim Padgett

Whatever differences might exist between former Cuban President Fidel Castro and his younger brother, President Raúl Castro, the most important is style. Fidel values a fiery belly full of political ideology; Raúl prizes a cooler head equipped with administrative acumen. The latter has been at the forefront ever since the ailing Fidel, 82, ceded power to Raúl, 77, last year. But this week Raúl’s m.o. emerged in ways that could eventually facilitate the tentative but growing efforts in Washington and Havana to end 50 years of hemispheric cold war and thaw U.S.-Cuba relations. (See TIME articles about Cuba.)

By dumping Fidel loyalist Felipe Perez Roque as Foreign Minister and replacing him with a career diplomat, Raúl may be signaling a less political and more flexible tone for Cuba’s foreign policy apparatus. Perez Roque, 43, a former personal aide to Fidel, is a pugnacious communist doctrinaire often referred to as Fidel’s pit bull, more suited to El Comandante’s policy of confrontation with Washington. (He once called himself part of the Cuban “Taliban.”) His successor, Bruno Rodriguez, who had been Perez Roque’s No. 2, is by contrast a more bookish foreign service veteran, a former journalist who was Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1995 to 2003. As such, he may be a better fit as Foreign Minister as Raúl tries to engage the Obama Administration — and vice versa. The younger Castro has expressed a desire for improved ties with the U.S. and is seeking an end to Washington’s 47-year-old trade embargo against communist Cuba. (See how salsa struggles to survive in Cuba.)

Raúl’s shuffle takes place the same week that the U.S. Senate is voting whether to approve a $410 billion omnibus spending bill that includes a loosening of the embargo. One measure, which President Barack Obama promised during his 2008 campaign, would let Cuban Americans travel to Cuba once a year instead of only once every three years. Others would reverse regulations on sales of food and medicine to the island and ease payment conditions. Cuban-American Senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Mel Martinez of Florida oppose including the Cuba language in the bill, insisting that Havana first improve human rights — including letting Cubans travel freely, a change Cuba watchers thought Raúl would order last year but which he didn’t. But the provisions reflect a movement among a growing number on Capitol Hill, most prominently Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, to acknowledge that the embargo has failed to dislodge the Castro regime and that it’s time to open diplomatic channels. (See TIME articles about Fidel Castro.)

The question is whether Raúl is on the same page. Was his shake-up at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry actually intended to encourage a U.S. change in Cuba policy? On the one hand, says Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington, “putting in someone who’s a technocrat and not an ideologue will be perceived as a small sign of something positive in Washington.” Then again, says Mora, it’s difficult to tell if it also indicates that Raúl is “preparing himself for the eventuality of Washington making more of these gestures.” Rodriguez’s appointment, as well as a host of others Raúl made this week to replace top officials often viewed as loyal to Fidel, “was more about streamlining bureaucracy” — an effort to make his government more responsive than it was perceived by most Cubans to be in his first year as President — “than any response to the Obama Administration.” (See Fidel Castro at the height of power.)

Indeed, Raúl, who until succeeding Fidel was Cuba’s Defense Minister for almost five decades, placed numerous military brass loyal to him in key posts. They included General Jose Amado Ricardo Guerra as Secretary of the Council of Ministers, who replaces Carlos Lage, 57, a physician turned economics czar who is widely credited with seeing Cuba through the financially harrowing 1990s after the island lost its massive Soviet subsidies. Lage was often mentioned as a possible successor to Fidel.

Both Lage and Perez Roque are said to have fallen out of favor with Raúl. But Fidel, in an effort to dispel the widespread appearance of Raulismo vs. Fidelismo, published an essay in the state-run Cuba Debate a day after Raúl’s changes in which he insisted that he had signed off on the ousters. In classic Fidel style — portraying fired officials as fallen communist angels — he wrote that Perez Roque and Lage were “liberated from their posts” not because they were Fidelistas but because “the honey of power” had infected them and “awakened in them ambitions” that made them “unworthy.” After that the two men were compelled to resign their posts in the powerful Council of State and the even more important Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

Although he is considered a Raulista, Rodriguez remains a relatively unknown entity in the Castro hierarchy. As experts like Mora point out, it’s too soon to tell if Raúl chose Rodriguez with a proactive U.S.-Cuba mission in mind or simply to have a professional but nondescript bureaucrat warm the Foreign Minster’s seat. Raúl already consults a small core of foreign policy veterans on U.S. policy, including Jorge Bolaños, Cuba’s de facto ambassador in Washington, and Fernando Remírez de Estenoz, one of Cuba’s most respected diplomats and the foreign relations point man inside the Cuban Communist Party’s all-powerful Central Committee. Havanologists will be watching closely to see if Rodriguez becomes part of that circle.

Obama and Raúl will continue to approach each other hopefully but cautiously. The U.S. President, who is set to attend next month’s Summit of the Americas in Trinidad — at which Cuba is the only disinvited nation — says he favors keeping the embargo largely in place until Cuba demonstrates political reform. But he also knows that opening up to the island is necessary to mending Washington’s broken relations with Latin America in general. By the same token, Raúl, who has insisted on U.S. concessions on items like the embargo before he delivers his own, like releasing jailed dissidents, surely knows he’ll have to give a little on his side to crack the embargo. The Cuban Taliban was certainly not the man for a diplomatic challenge like that. So if Raúl is smart, he chose his new Foreign Minister to be more than just a figurehead — and if Obama is wise, the White House will make the effort to engage the new man at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.

With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City

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