By ANITA SNOW Associated Press Writer
Raul Castro, CEO.
With the military controlling a good share of Cuba’s tourism, electronics imports and foreign currency reserves, the defense minister is as much entrepreneur as soldier.
Now that he’s filling in as president for his ailing brother, Fidel, Raul Castro can count on a network of similarly positioned uniformed and retired officers who are as loyal to him from behind their desks as they were on the battlefields of Angola and Ethiopia.
The loyalty of those generals and colonels has helped them move into the highest echelons of the government and the economy.
Even dissident Vladimiro Roca, a former fighter pilot under Castro’s command before breaking with the government, believes Castro has the military leadership’s support. But more than either Castro, they are “committed to the system,” Roca said of the generals. “What they are interested in is maintaining their status.”
That status is significant. Five active generals sit on the Communist Party’s powerful 19-member Politburo, which also includes the Castro brothers.
So does a retired military man: Juan Almeida Bosque, who played a historic military role in the revolution’s early years. Another retired officer sits on the governing Council of State, Vice President Jose Ramon Fernandez, who helped lead Cuba’s victorious troops at the U.S.-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
Two of those active generals also run key ministries. Lt. Gen. Abelardo Colome Ibarra, 66, oversees the island’s vast domestic security and intelligence apparatus as interior minister. As sugar minister, Maj. Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, 64, controls Cuba’s economically important production of cane for export.
Generals and colonels in the past have also headed the fishing and transportation ministries, as well as Habanos S.A., which works with a European firm to market the island’s world-famous cigars abroad. Another former commander, Ramiro Valdes, operates Grupo de Electronica de Cuba, which imports computers and other electronics.
The Armed Forces also operates the TRD Caribe chain, which has hundreds of small stores selling consumer goods across the country, and Gaviota S.A., a tourism company that runs more than 30 hotels and has subsidiaries that provide tourist travel.
The military’s economic enterprises are run by the Defense Ministry’s Business Administration Group, overseen by Raul Castro’s second-in-command and confidant, Lt. Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro.
By all accounts, the defense minister is a highly capable manager, and many believe his pragmatism and sharp business sense could prompt him to open Cuba’s economy should he ever be placed in power permanently. Former Sandinista rebel commander Tomas Borge said Fidel Castro once told him Raul was the best organizer he knew.
“The ministry with the greatest efficiency, in all senses and aspects, has always been the Armed Forces,” said dissident Roca, whose late father Blas Roca was a top Communist Party leader.
Known as a warm and jocular man who dotes on friends and family, Raul Castro also has proven to be capable of extreme toughness. In 1959, in the first months after the revolution, he and Ernesto “Che” Guevara oversaw the executions of officials from the deposed government of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
“My hand didn’t tremble then and it doesn’t tremble now,” Castro told state news media in 1989 when he voted to uphold the death penalty for a highly decorated Maj. Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa _ who reportedly had been one of his closest friends _ and three officers convicted of drug trafficking.
Ochoa and most of the top generals who Castro now counts on for support spent years on the battlefields of Angola and Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s, leading troops in African struggles for independence from colonial rulers.
The defense minister directed those wars from Havana, deferring always to his brother, Fidel, who is commander in chief and took a keen interest in the most minute details of military movements and battles.
The military reached its zenith of power in those years, and the decorated generals returning home were treated as conquering heroes. But when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its primary benefactor, the military’s role changed drastically.
Fidel Castro announced that Cuba would no longer fight in independence movements abroad, and the military developed a new focus on defense and the economy. The military today is probably Cuba’s most powerful and respected institution.
The military has an estimated 37,000 troops and 700,000 reservists, according to “Jane’s World Armies.” It can also call on more than 1 million militia members, as well as paramilitary and civilian groups.
But Raul Castro made sure that was only a part of the armed forces’ role. It now uses its stores and tourism business to capture hard currency to pay for imports, and the 100,000-member Youth Labor Army produces basic foodstuffs to be sold at extremely low cost at government markets.
“Raul was the lead architect of these adaptations in military missions,” former CIA analyst Brian Latell wrote in his book “After Fidel.”
“Like the concessions Fidel made to allow foreign tourism and dollarization, Raul had no illusions about the risks of giving selected officers access to substantial financial flows,” Latell wrote. “But as the economy collapsed, he concluded there was no alternative if the military was to survive and the revolution was to endure.”