BY FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald
With the promotions of some of Cuba’s top men in uniform, Cuba’s military is expected to play a significant role in future economic reforms.
As he climbed up the ranks of Cuba’s armed forces, it was years before Julio Casas Regueiro could shake the reputation that he was being promoted because of who he knew—not what.
Casas wasn’t a good military man, one of his former bosses said, but with promotions from a friend in high places—then-Defense Minister Raúl Castro—he eventually proved to be a great logistician and business manager.
And now he is Cuba’s new defense minister and vice president, moving up after Castro was elected the island’s president Feb. 24. He’ll not only be leading Cuba’s armed forces but is also expected to apply his business acumen to the country’s ailing economy.
Castro’s decision to surround himself with Casas and three other generals at the top level of government underscores the vast trust that the new president has in his military buddies, experts say. And while the armed forces are unlikely to take on any more major business initiatives—that would hardly be possible—the generals are expected to become the masterminds of efficiency-minded plans to boost the island’s economy.
Cuba’s 55,000 member Revolutionary Armed Forces is already in charge of most of the business sectors, including hotels and domestic airlines. With its top leaders now in some of the nation’s highest positions of power, its role in a post-Fidel Cuba is likely to be reinforced, experts added.
Casas’ promotion as one of five vice presidents in the ruling Council of State is a prime example.
‘‘Casas Regueiro was always considered someone who was somewhere he should not be—someone who got there through friendship,’’ said José Quevedo, a former general who now lives in Miami. ``Eventually, he became the person who took advantage of military discipline for use in business, and that showed results.
``He’s more a businessman than soldier.’‘
MASTER OF LOGISTICS
Casas and Castro became close friends in the 1950s, when both were members of Fidel Castro’s ragtag army of guerrillas fighting to topple Fulgencio Batista. Casas founded the rebel army’s Sixth Column and the National Police after the revolution’s triumph in 1959. He participated in the Bay of Pigs and later became the military’s point man for logistics.
‘‘He worked brilliantly,’’ Raúl Castro said when he announced the appointment. ``He [stood out] in a phase of the Air Force when we had a vacuum and no one to name.’‘
Quevedo—who was Casas’ boss at one point—said the now-72-year-old distinguished himself managing logistics.
‘‘He was repudiated by most of his own men,’’ Quevedo said. ``Then the economics of the armed forces was in his control, and he developed purely logistical experience at the highest level. He’s good at that.’‘
A former head of Cuba’s Eastern Army—one of the three main regional divisions—Casas was also first vice minister of defense. A veteran in Cuba’s involvement in Ethiopia, he is also a member of the Communist Party’s Political Buro and a member of the National Assembly since 1981. He’s been on the Council of State’s central committee since 1998.
‘‘I have criticized practically all the Armed Forces generals,’’ Castro told the Assembly.
``I do not recall having made a criticism in these past 50 years of comrade Julio Casas, except that he is very stingy. But that’s where he gets his economic success.’‘
True enough: the former banker is credited with the Armed Forces’ so-called ‘‘business perfection plan.’’ He sent top military officers to study hotel management and accounting abroad to bring home a sense of efficiency and business expertise to the armed forces.
Soon, the FAR was not just running troops. Under Casas, the military formed GAESA, the holding company that runs up to 60 percent of Cuban state companies, including hotels, airlines and retail outfits.
His No. 2 in the company was Col. Luis Alberto Rodríguez, Raúl Castro’s son-in-law.
AN ECONOMIC FORCE