Who is the 2nd most powerful man in Cuba today?
Posted: 27 October 2011 03:25 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Original title: Critical vacancy atop Cuba’s army
BY BRIAN LATELL

The strongest and most essential institution in Raúl Castro’s government has been without a leader since Sept. 3 when three star general Julio Casas died unexpectedly. Nearly eight weeks later the vacancy in the revolutionary armed forces ministry suggests that the leadership is in a quandary about who should fill it.

Beginning in October 1959 when Raúl assumed command of the military, he and Casas were its only chiefs. The younger Castro reigned until February 2008, later boasting in a remarkable flourish during an interview that he had been the longest serving defense minister in human history.

His faithful crony Casas, who fought with him in the late 1950s guerrilla struggle, succeeded as minister when Raúl officially took over the presidency. But now Raúl must elevate another man to the only job in Cuba where viable challenges to his supremacy could originate. There have been just two known instances of severe disenchantment in the armed forces, and both were dealt with by the Castro brothers with cruelty and finality.

In late 1959 the courageous Huber Matos, one of the most respected veterans of the insurgency, was imprisoned on Fidel’s orders by a kangaroo court. Thirty years later, during the summer of crisis in the Soviet bloc, General Arnaldo Ochoa, then the most accomplished and popular military commander, was executed on trumped up charges. In both cases, the offenders had lost confidence in the Castros’ dictatorship and sought liberalizing change.

If absolute loyalty to the regime were the only requirement for filling the defense post, several candidates could be relied on. Three-star generals and vice ministers Leopoldo Cintra Frías and Ramón Espinosa Martín, both in their early 70s, certainly qualify. They served dependably, if unimaginatively, as commanders of Cuba’s two most powerful regional armies and sit on the Communist Party Politburo.

Cintra Frias ran the strategically important Western Army, headquartered in Havana, from 1991 until 2009. He has the seniority, but is not one of Raúl’s favorites and has not been identified as acting minister. That he was not present on October 3 when Raúl met with a visiting military delegation from Angola may indicate that he is actually out of the running.

Interior minister, Politburo member, and three-star general Abelardo Colomé Ibarra is closer to Raúl than any other officer, and would be unquestionably loyal. But his health is reported by many sources to be in serious decline. Nonetheless, he could prove to be the ideal place holder.

Only two other three-star generals are currently on active duty, just one of whom is sufficiently close to Raúl to be a serious candidate. Army chief of staff Alvaro Lopez Miera is said to be like a second son to Raúl. As a 14-year-old, he went up into the eastern sierra to fight with Raúl’s forces, but was considered too young to take up arms and was assigned to teach local peasants instead. Now in his late 60s, Lopez is the youngest of the contenders in an armed force dominated by elderly generals.

Seventy-nine year-old Ramiro Valdes has the requisite experience managing the armed forces’ extensive for-profit enterprises, especially in electronics and communications, and therefore must be considered a dark horse candidate. He served two tours as minister of interior, sits on the party Politburo and the Council of State, and is generally regarded now as third in the line of succession. But he has been a perennial rival to Raúl and is not trusted by the senior military establishment. His appointment would likely open many old wounds.

In short, there is really no one among the candidates who meets all of Raul’s criteria. As Cuba’s only four-star general, he will continue as the country’s highest ranking military officer, but, at 80 years of age, he is too old and preoccupied with righting the precarious economy to manage day-to-day ministry affairs. He has undoubtedly been busy since Casas’ death consulting with his top generals, trying to forge a consensus, and demanding their loyalty amid the unanticipated new uncertainties this decision poses for him.

Raúl is all too aware that the man he chooses as Cuba’s next defense minister will instantly become the second most powerful leader on the island. That succession, therefore, is nearly as important as the presidency. Whoever it is Raúl ultimately selects could easily be the man who will lead post-Castro Cuba into a new era.

Brian Latell is a senior research associate at the Institute of Cuba and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami and a former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency.

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