Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reform in Food Distribution

14:26 30Mar2009 Cuba revamps food distribution in efficiency move

* Cuba overhauls food distribution system

* Castro pushing to boost farmers' output

* Agriculture ministry to focus on food production

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, March 30 (Reuters) - Cuba has begun a major overhaul of its food distribution system as part of an effort to increase production and tackle inefficiency, farmers and cooperative producers said.

The vast state network responsible for purchasing and distributing 90 percent of farm output has been moved from the agriculture ministry to the domestic trade ministry, the sources said.

Their comments confirmed a brief report on state-run television last week saying the transfer was underway and that "agriculture will be left with what has to do with production."

The report said the number of state produce markets in the country would be almost doubled from 156 to 300.

So far, government officials have not spoken publicly of the moves, nor have official decrees been published.

But farmers are praising the steps because they say they will allow agricultural officials to concentrate on getting more food produced while leaving distribution to another ministry.

"It is a good measure linked to others they are taking. Agriculture should not be diverted from producing by other tasks," farmer Alfredo Rodriguez said in a telephone interview from the central province of Camaguey.

President Raul Castro has made increasing food production a priority since taking over for his ailing brother Fidel Castro just over a year ago.

The cash-strapped country imports some 60 percent of the food it consumes, spending nearly $2 billion last year.

Raul Castro has moved to decentralize control of agriculture, once centered in Havana, and to increase farm supplies. He has begun the massive leasing of fallow state lands to those interested in tilling it and has as much as tripled amounts the state pays for most agricultural products.

Local economists have applauded the measures, but say they fall short of the market mechanisms needed to improve output.


The latest move followed a government reshuffle earlier this month that replaced eight ministers and several top officials and brought armed forces generals, former officers and middle-aged Communist Party officials into the cabinet.

Acopio is the name of the huge state-run purchasing and distribution system that has come under fire for being grossly inefficient.

There have been numerous reports in the local media this year of how part of a bumper tomato harvest rotted in the fields for lack of containers and transport to cart it away.

"Acopio functions as an intermediary between farmers and consumers and has no business being part of the agriculture ministry," farm cooperative member Diego Cosme said in a telephone interview from eastern Holguin province.

Raul Castro has promised to reorganize and downsize the government to make it and the state-run economy more efficient.

Cuba has around 250,000 family farms and 1,100 private cooperatives, which together produce about 70 percent of the country's food on less than one-third of the cultivated land.

The remainder of the land is owned by the state, and half of that lies fallow.

Some 90 percent of the food is purchased by the state and shipped to institutions ranging from hospitals and schools to work place lunchrooms, and also sold at state markets, with the remainder sold by farmers on the open market.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Kieran Murray)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Jorge Castañeda vs. Nelson Valdez

The Plot Against The Castros
Two of Cuba's star politicians seem to have been a part of a conspiracy or a coup to overthrow Raúl Castro

Jorge Castañeda
From the magazine issue dated Mar 23, 2009

For years, two tidbits of conventional wisdom have dominated debates among Cubanologists (a tropical subspecies of former Kremlinologists). First, that Deputy Prime Minister and economic czar Carlos Lage has been in charge of running the island economy since the early '90s, and, despite differences of opinion regarding his performance, was seen as one of the most likely successors to Fidel Castro's brother and successor, Raúl. Second, that Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque was not only in charge of the international relations Fidel Castro took increasingly less interest in, but that he was something of a favorite son. Most observers, including several Latin American ex-presidents close to Castro, saw him as the heir apparent, once the caudillo's brother passed from the scene. So Raúl's decision to dump the two stars a fortnight ago is a major event in Cuba, and unlike previous purges, this one is clearly linked to Fidel Castro's succession, and may tell us a great deal about what lies ahead.

The problem, of course, is that, as in the Soviet Union when Stalin died, or in China after Mao's death, we don't really know what is going on. Yet there are solid reasons to believe that something along the following lines took place: for at least a month or so, Lage, Pérez Roque and others were apparently involved in a conspiracy, betrayal, coup or whatever term one prefers, to overthrow or displace Raúl from his position. In this endeavor, they recruited—or were recruited by—Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who in turn tried to enlist the support of other Latin American leaders, starting with Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, who refused to get involved.

Their reasons for wishing to unseat Rául were mainly turf and power, but they also feared that the leader was beginning to feel threatened by the reaction of the Cuban people to excessive economic and social deprivation, and after his brother's demise would be unable to control the flow of events. Consequently, he would accept a series of economic and political reforms to normalize relations with the United States, knowing full well that therein lay the only option for immediate improvement in Cubans' lives. They believed this to be a betrayal of the revolution, and the beginning of the end of its survival.

This would represent the latest of many anti-Castro intrigues since 1959. As usual, Castro (Raúl this time; before, both brothers) detected the plot almost before the plotters themselves. Raúl took the evidence collected by military intelligence to his ailing brother, and forced him to choose: stick with him and extend his support to the predetermined succession path, or back Lage and Pérez Roque and forsake Raúl. With evident disappointment in his old allies, the Comandante Máximo backed Raúl. Then Chávez was summoned to Havana to be placed before another devil's alternative: back off, while maintaining economic support for the island, or lose his Cuban security detail and intelligence apparatus, exposing himself to coups and assassination attempts from eventual Venezuelan replacements. He chose to stick with the Castros.

The day after their resignation, the two plotters were expelled from their other posts in disgrace. In a newspaper column Fidel accused them of harboring excessive "ambitions" fed by the "honey of power" and the "absence of sacrifice." He said they had reawakened the illusions of "foreign powers" regarding Cuba's future. More importantly, and enigmatically, he resorted to a baseball metaphor on the occasion of the World Baseball Classic to praise Dominicans for not participating (the team's plans had been unclear) and to claim that Chávez's baseball players, "as good and young" as they might be, were no match for "Cuba's seasoned all-stars."

When the conspirators were stripped of their titles, they published classic Stalinist mea culpa letters, acknowledging their "mistakes" (without saying what they were), and pledging loyalty to Fidel, Raúl and the revolution. Such behavior raises ominous questions. Pérez Roque was popular in Cuba; his youth, his humble origins, his combative nature all brought him closer to the people than most Cuban bureaucrats. Once Fidel is gone, will Raúl be able to "keep him down on the farm," if and when he claims to be Fidel's true heir? Will Raúl be able to pull off a rapprochement with Washington quickly enough to placate the restiveness his opponents could exploit? Or should he act to remove them from the scene, one way or another, before they return shrouded in glory?

Needless to say, none of this can be fully substantiated, and it is quite possible that, indeed, the entire affair might have now come to an end. Or, more probably, there will be a sequel: further persecution of the fallen idols, growing discontent in Cuba and increasing difficulties on the part of Raúl in managing the succession. It is worth remembering that Lenin, Stalin and Mao were all unable to control their successions, and they were neither fools nor choir children. There is scant reason to believe that Fidel, despite all his talent, will prove more successful.

Castañeda is a former foreign minister of Mexico, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University and a fellow at the New America Foundation.
URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/189261


Newsweek, Foreign Policy Magazine and Speculation as "Entertainment"
by Nelson P Valdés

Cuba-L Analysis (Albuquerque)

"I would rather tell seven lies than make one explanation.
- Mark Twain

"Even now you can see how there are attempts to distort what happens in the
world and what is the truth of what is going on in Cuba."
- Fidel Castro, April 4, 1959

On March 14, 2009 Newsweek magazine published an article ["The Plot Against
the Castros"] written by Jorge Castañeda. The article claimed to provide an
interpretation of the reasons for the March 3rd government changes in Cuba.
The author claimed,

"...for at least a month or so, Lage, Pérez Roque and others were apparently
involved in a conspiracy, betrayal, coup or whatever term one prefers, to
overthrow or displace Raúl from his position. In this endeavor, they
recruited-or were recruited by-Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who in turn tried to
enlist the support of other Latin American leaders, starting with Leonel
Fernández of the Dominican Republic, who refused to get involved."[1]

Castañeda, using his power of creative fiction wrote: "The day after their
resignation, the two plotters were expelled from their other posts in
disgrace. In a newspaper column Fidel accused them of harboring excessive
"ambitions" fed by the "honey of power" and the "absence of sacrifice." He
said they had reawakened the illusions of "foreign powers" regarding Cuba's
future. More importantly,and enigmatically, he resorted to a baseball
metaphor on the occasion of the World Baseball Classic to praise Dominicans
for not participating (the team's plans had been unclear) and to claim that
Chavez's baseball players, "as good and young" as they might be, were no
match for "Cuba's seasoned all-stars."

In his article Castañeda conflated Fidel Castro's comments about the
Baseball Classic with changes in the makeup of the Cuban cabinet. In the
process he even imagined the role of two Latin American presidents.

Within hours it was clear that the Newsweek piece was based on no evidence.
Jorge Castañeda had said as much 72 hours later, CNN fromMexico City quoted
him as saying, ""I have no evidence of it."[2]. Yet, on March 18th in the
digital version of the Spanish newspaper El País he had a new article (La
ambigüedad de la victoria) where he repeated his speculation although
acknowledging he had nothing to back him up. In the new revised speculation
he mentioned Hugo Chavez but not the Dominican Republic president. of
course, the Venezuelan president denied the assertions. [3]

Over 67,000 web pages, blogs and printed media reproduced the claim that
there had been a plot against the government of Raul Castro; yet, only
18,000 web pages reported that the whole thing was not based on evidence.
When it comes to Cuba, anything goes as far as the mass media and numerous
academic institutions are concerned. Castañeda is at present a fellow at the
New America Foundation, which only shows that some "think tanks" are ready
to broadcast fantasy, falsehoods and anything else as long as some
ideological preconceptions are ratified.

The blogger Machetera, on March 17, decided to speculate on what is going on
"Inside Jorge Castañeda's feverish mind." And "just for fun" Machetera
ripped the Newsweek article apart, paragraph by paragraph. [4] Yet, another
"respectable" publication came to the rescue of the creative fiction writer
- Foreign Policy magazine - owned by the same company that produces
Newsweek. Joshua Keating, the editor of FP wrote on the blog the editors of
the magazine have:

"To be fair to Castañeda, "informed speculation" is probably the best we're
going to get in terms of Cuban political analysis at the moment. His theory
seems as good as any of the others (It is a bit strange that Chavez hasn't
publicly commented on any of this yet.) and at least it has the virtue of
being entertaining."[5]

Of course, all these assertions were the result of an overactive imagination
lacking the most basic professional ethics of commitment to truth, integrity
and intellectual honesty.[6]

In the post-modern world truth, accuracy and method are of no consequence,
it seems. Infotainment now passes as foreign policy analysis. When
everything fails to justify political speculation, and hacks passing as
academics are caught in their lies; there is always the entertainment value
of lying. Or so, we are told.



[1] http://www.newsweek.com/id/189261

[2] http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/03/17/cuba.overthrow.plot/

[3] http://cuba-l.unm.edu/?nid=66877 and


[5] http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/03/18/cubanologist_smackdown

[6] A Guide to Professional Ethics in Political Science, Second Edition,
revised 2008. http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/ethicsguideweb.pdf

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Triumph of the Raulistas

Two factions had definitely emerged in the Cuban government since Raul's
formal accession to the presidency last year. The rift between the
Fidelistas and Raulistas was widening. The military (supported by those
in the intelligence services who know that genuine economic reform is
vital for the survival of the Revolution), were increasingly frustrated,
reflecting the widespread feeling of the Cuban people. I actually heard
senior military people say that a coup could happen if the Fidelistas
persisted in putting the brakes on economic reforms. This was a
necessary move, as the Cuban people are increasingly discontented, and
if there were a popular uprising, the military would probably join it
rather than shoot protesters.

From what I know of the people named as replacements, this is indeed a
triumph of the Raul faction. Most (including the Army generals) could
be characterized as technocrats, well-educated, worldly, with a strong
understanding of different economic systems, non-ideological, pragmatic,
and results-oriented. Some (and possibly all) have spent time abroad in
Western countries, and have been exposed to different political and
economic systems. I am sure that they are loyal to Raul. These are not
democrats, but I believe that they have a mandate to reform the Cuban
economy and that this will involve a strong market element at the
domestic level. I have been told that a sweeping economic reform plan
exists, but could not be implemented due to opposition of the

Perez Roque was despised by other senior members of the Cuban
government. I have heard for months that Carlos Lage had lost power and
was no longer a force to be reckoned with. He will continue to serve in
an advisory role, as his views are respected (he is considered to be an

It is very important for the US government to recognize that Ricardo
Alarcon is little more than an official spokesman for the Cuban
government. He is not a possible successor to Raul.

It is also important for the Obama administration to understand that the
Cuban military has morphed into a military/industrial complex, and is
staffed by officers who are more businessmen than "old school" military
thugs. I have met several field grade officers with MBAs from western
universities. These people have also been very influenced by the
economies of Viet Nam and China, although I have spoken to some who
expressed greater admiration for Singapore and Sweden, and have told me
that Cuba will create a new economic system that incorporates elements
from successful socialist economies and create a new "Cuban Economic

A common complaint in Cuba is "the system doesn't work." Raul's people
are determined to make the system work, even if it means creating a
market economy and putting a socialist veneer on it.

Finally, the people now in power are open to normalizing relations with
the US (and view it as inevitable), but want to control the process so
that change comes gradually. I believe that a similar policy path
should be followed by President Obama.

--Timothy Ashby 3/3/09
Cabesterre, LLC Miami, Fl.
former senior political appointee at the US Commerce Department, International Trade Administration. Bio at www.CubaTradeExpo.com

Speculation from Havana

Crawling with Speculation
Inter Press Service - March 4

By Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Mar 4 (IPS) - While the staff of the cabinet ministries set to undergo major reforms are gearing themselves for what lies ahead, the people of Cuba, from academics to pensioners, are speculating about the extent of the recently announced changes and hoping they will bring improvements to their lives and to living standards in general.

Meanwhile, the official daily of the Communist Party, Granma, published an article Wednesday in which former president Fidel Castro clarified that the major cabinet shakeup announced Monday has his full support.

The column also set off new conjecture as to why powerful figures like former foreign minister Felipe P rez Roque and former cabinet chief Carlos Lage were unexpectedly removed from those posts.

Referring to them only as "the two most frequently mentioned," the convalescent Castro wrote that "the honey of power, for which they had made no sacrifices, awoke in them ambitions that led them to play an undignified role. The external enemy was filled with illusions for them."

By contrast, the statement in which the Council of State announced the ministerial shuffle Monday consistently used the respectful term "compa ero" and the verb "released" from their posts, rather than "dismissed."

"I told you yesterday that this was a truene ," one neighbour remarked to another. Leaning out of their windows, the two women lowered their voices as a group of tourists walked by.

In Cuban slang, a public employee who has been "tronado" has been "thunderously" sacked and put on the "pajama plan" in other words, sent home.

"Fidel s reflection reveals that there were problems with Lage and P rez Roque, but provides no real explanations. We will have to wait for things to be clarified further," an academic source who asked not to be identified told IPS.

Less cautious, a young university professor commented that the removals came as a big surprise because "many people in Cuba thought they (the officials in question) were set to govern in the future."

"Now, all of us would like more information," said another professor. "Fidel s accusation is very serious."

The 57-year-old Lage is a member of the governing Communist Party s powerful Politburo and was reelected as vice president of the Council of State in February 2008. P rez Roque, 43, is a member of the Council of State and of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

In the past, both officials formed part of the "Commander-in-Chief s Coordination and Support Group", a government team made up of younger Communist Party leaders that was in charge of overseeing and implementing projects and initiatives considered top priority by Fidel Castro, who due to his failing health was permanently replaced as president in February 2008 by his younger brother Ra l.

The special group functioned parallel to the cabinet of ministers.

Observers suppose that as part of Ra l Castro s process of streamlining the government s institutions, such parallel structures no longer have a raison d etre. And it is in that light that the restructuring of the cabinet - which includes the merging of several ministries, to concentrate efforts and resources and boost efficacy - should be understood, they say.

In the view of the younger Castro brother, Cuba s institutions are one of the "pillars of invulnerability of the revolution, in the political terrain." In that sense, one of the decisions that was most widely welcomed was to "release" Otto Rivero from his responsibilities as vice president of the Council of Ministers.

Rivero was in charge of the so-called "battle of ideas", a plan created to "perfect" Cuban socialism in a number of areas, which included programmes that have now been put under the aegis of the "respective investing bodies," according to the official statement.

"The new government wants the ministries to truly fulfill their roles. These parallel bodies created a dangerous duality of power, concentrated in people who did not have to answer to the Council of Ministers - not to mention the fact that they opened a door to the chaotic use of funds," an academic with experience in the matter commented to IPS.

While some researchers were somewhat sceptical about the government reforms put into motion by Ra l Castro on Monday, the source who spoke at length with IPS expressed enthusiasm, and said he hoped that under the new Minister of Economy and Planning, Marino Murillo, Cuban state enterprises would become more competitive, face fewer hurdles and receive greater incentives.

He also applauded the merging of the Ministries of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, under Minister Rodrigo Malmierca.

The academic described Malmierca, who up to Monday was at the helm of the Ministry of Foreign Investment, as "a person with frequent flier miles , who knows how the economy and world politics work."

The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said "Cuba is betting on real insertion into the global economy," and for that reason it must overcome internal problems and eliminate, for example, regulations and laws that lead to "the constant undersupply of the country s stores" and that stand in the way of the export of domestically produced goods by Cuban companies.

And while some analysts have criticised the appointment of several armed forces officers to the cabinet, arguing that it will usher in a degree of "militarisation" of the government, he said he disagreed.

With respect to the naming of army general Salvador Pardo Cruz the former head of the Military Industry Union as Minister of the Steel Industry, he said it was a good decision, pointing out that the military managed to upgrade and modernise their equipment based on local initiative, resources and organisation, with a strategy that could be transferred to the steel industry, which he said is currently "undercapitalised" due to a lack of coherence in the ministry s policies.

No less strategic was the appointment of Jos Miyar at the head of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, along with the transfer of the "scientific pole" - comprised of Cuba s main scientific research institutions to the ministry. (It currently answers directly to the Council of State). "No one knows more about science in Cuba than he does," said the source.

That decision also eliminates the unequal treatment received by the research institutions grouped on the west side of Havana and other parts of the "scientific pole" around the country.

"I think Chomi (the name by which people in Cuba know Miyar) will bring about a shift among scientists and science, a sector that has been called upon to become a dynamic productive force in the country," the expert said.

Cuba s biotech industry, which began to be developed in 1998, is generating more than 300 million dollars a year in exports, according to unofficial reports. And countries that have good relations with Cuba have expressed a growing interest in joint operations that would allow the sharing and even the transfer of know-how.

"I think Cuba is making progress towards the creation of conditions to make the leap forward and pull out of the hole, and that it will become an efficient country, where work will once again be the source of social recognition, and which will be inserted in a diverse world, based on its own diversity, and that Ra l will have the merit of launching this crusade," the source added.

New Foreign Minister

Cuban foreign minister expected to set new tone


Posted on Tue, Mar. 10, 2009 Miami Herald

The new face of the Cuban government overseas is a man with perfect English, a steady professional style, and more than a decade of experience living in New York as a Cuba representative at the United Nations.

People who have met newly appointed Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tend to use the same word to describe him: diplomatic. It's not an adjective often used for Cuban ambassadors, who are usually noted for ideological rhetoric.

Rodríguez is a career foreign service officer who takes the helm of the country's foreign ministry at a time of heightened expectation for change between Washington and Havana.

His predecessor was fired and Rodríguez was appointed the same week that the U.S. Senate debated adjustments to Cuba policy. The former United Nations ambassador will be helping shape Cuban foreign policy just after a parade of Latin American presidents visited the island -- and a month before those same leaders meet with President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas conference in Trinidad.

''Raúl Castro could well be preparing for Obama, because Obama is a complicating factor for all these fellows: Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia,'' said Javier Corrales, a Cuba expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts. ``They need to have a response.''


Experts say Rodríguez's response will undoubtedly be the Cuban Communist Party line, but delivered in a manner American politicians are unaccustomed to.

Rodríguez is described as a deliberate, intelligent, great negotiator. His identifying feature is his impassibility: He can say the harshest things without becoming upset or raising his voice.

At 51, he is among the youngest members of the Cuban Cabinet. He was born in Mexico, the son of a Spanish immigrant who was a Civil War refugee.

A law graduate, Rodríguez entered politics as a Communist Youth leader, and was the chief of its international relations department. He served at a mission in Angola, and in 1990, was named to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He was close to Roberto Robaina, a disgraced former foreign minister.

For a short time, Rodríguez was editor of the Juventud Rebelde newspaper and distinguished himself for his hard line in the face of the changes imposed by perestroika and glasnost. He wrote a harsh review of the 1991 movie Alice in Wondertown, a movie that led Fidel Castro to oust the president of the Cinema Institute.

In 1993, Rodríguez became a delegate to the United Nations, where he honed his political skills until 2004.


He gave fiery speeches defending Cuba after the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down 1996, and filed a formal complaint when the corner outside the Cuban mission in Manhattan was named after the pilots' group.

''He has never held a job outside government,'' said Frank Calzon, who heads Center for a Free Cuba, an anti-Castro organization in Washington. ``I asked someone in our government whether this guy could be independent and moderate. He answered: Nobody in the Cuban government can ever be independent or moderate.''

To be sure, Rodríguez's political finesse did not mean he was unwilling to take on Cuba's northern neighbor. He railed at the ''yankees'' when Washington declined to condemn the perpetrators of the 2002 coup in Venezuela.

''There will never be any flirting with those who want to chop off our heads,'' Rodríguez said in a 2002 speech. ``There will be no concessions or gestures or dialogue: There will be a struggle without any truce, until the last bullet.''

Mauricio Font, director of the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies in New York, said Rodríguez will bring diplomacy back to Cuban international relations.

''He would return Cuban diplomacy to a more traditional way of doing things,'' Font said. ``He has made contacts and people respect him. He can represent the Cuban position assertively, but he was not seen as an ideologue. He was seen as a diplomat.''


Font and Sandra Levinson, director of the Center for Cuban Studies, a New York nonprofit that advocates normalized relations with Cuba, said many people were particularly impressed with the former ambassador's wife Olga, a sharp and social woman.

''He was very smart and has a very smart wife,'' Levinson said.

She noted that both Rodríguez and Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba's new Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, were posted at the U.N. mission in New York. Malmierca's father, the late Isidoro Malmierca, was foreign minister from 1976 until 1992.

''It's certainly a sign when you see two people put in positions of authority who were recent ambassadors to the U.N.,'' Levinson said. ``I think they are trying to put people in place who have more professional qualities.''


After his assignment in New York, Rodríguez was first vice minister of foreign relations for five years. There, he was an architect of Cuba's recent diplomatic triumphs in Latin America and the U.N.

Experts say that diplomatic strategy toward Latin America and Europe was conceived to send a message to Obama: The secretary general of the Organization of American States wants Cuba reinstated in the community of hemispheric nations. Already, 31 countries have relations with the island.

Cuba was recently incorporated into the Río Group, reestablished ties with Mexico, strengthened commercial links with Brazil, and played host to a stream of presidents.

Sarah Stephens, who heads a Washington, D.C. anti-embargo organization, cautions against pinning too many hopes on Rodríguez, despite his qualifications.

''I just think we in the U.S. make the mistake of thinking of everything Havana does is about us. It usually isn't,'' she said. ''It strikes me that his predecessor got fired, and he was next in line. I want to think Havana wants better [U.S.] relations and [he was chosen because] he is better at it, but I don't know that I believe it.''

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Leadership Change As Seen from Havana

Raul Castro stirs up Cuban leadership
Posted: Tuesday, March 03, 2009 11:27 AM

By Mary Murray, NBC News Havana Bureau Chief

HAVANA – Cuba’s President Raul Castro sure knows how to get the nation to sit up and listen.

While most people were at school or work and far away from their TV sets on Monday, a news announcer read a typed sheet of paper announcing the reshuffling of 10 Cabinet positions and the collapse of four key ministries into two. But by the end of the day, the shake-up was all people were talking about.

The Cuban public seemed most surprised by the removal of two men closely aligned with Raul’s predecessor, Fidel Castro, and pegged as the frontrunners of the next generation of leaders.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque was replaced by his own deputy, Bruno Rodriguez. And Dr. Carlos Lage lost his job as Cabinet Secretary to Brig. Gen. Jose Amado Ricardo Guerra, but Lage remains one of the Council of State’s vice presidents.

Both men are popular leaders, especially with the island’s younger generations.

Possible successors no more
Prior to being named foreign minister, Perez Roque, 43, was Fidel Castro’s chief of staff – he was just fresh out of engineering college when he landed that job. At his appointment in 1999, he became the youngest member of the Cabinet and the only one born after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

The nation watched him grow from a shy figure in Fidel’s shadow into a self-assured politician who adroitly managed Cuba’s complex foreign relations with more than 140 countries. For the moment, Perez Roque remains a senior member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

Lage, 57, is a pediatrician by training who has been active in Communist Party politics since his student days. He rose to prominence during the turbulent years that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been the island’s financial lifeline. Lage become known as Cuba’s economic czar, credited with designing the financial reforms that allowed the island to survive the crisis that began in the early nineties.

Lage remains an extremely popular figure here. People remember him as the young politician who, like millions of workers, rode a Chinese bicycle to the office when the country had no cash to import oil. He was often spotted jogging along Havana’s public streets without bodyguards or fancy running shoes. In the summer of 2006 when Fidel Castro required surgery, Lage was one of the select group given provisional powers to rule in Fidel’s absence. He has widely been considered one of the successors to the Castro brothers’ rule.

Over the past year as Raul steered Cuba along his own course, Lage and others in Fidel's inner circle seemed to have lost influcence. Today there is no clear successor to 77-year-old Raul, except for his hand-picked vice president, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is actually a year old than the younger Castro brother.

In addition to the shuffling of some 10 Cabinet positions, Raul also took a stab at reducing the socialist government’s enormous bureaucracy.

Under Monday’s measures, the food and fishing ministries collapsed into one entity, as did the ministries of foreign trade and foreign cooperation. As with any reduction in public spending, these moves are expected to leave hundreds of state workers without jobs.

Still dominated by ‘historic generation’
Monday’s announcements could well add to grievances from younger people who complain that their generation holds little influence and power in today’s Cuba. Kids routinely grumble that the island is run and dominated by what’s known here as the "historic generation," the men who fought with Fidel Castro and seized power half a century ago.

Jesus Montoya, 23, said he heard the announcement in a packed university commons room. "It did not go over well. Some kids even started booing."

Personally, Montoya says he is reserving judgment since he backs any actions to reduce the government's size. "I hope this will naturally lead to a larger private sector. People need to stop relying on the state and the state needs to allow people to rely on their own abilities to make a living." He wants Raul to allow Cubans to open up their own businesses.

That however does not seem to be a priority for Raul’s administration, although he has allowed more private taxis on Havana’s streets. Instead, he seems focused on trying to tackle the colossal issue of government waste.

‘A matter of survival’
Since officially taking office on Feb. 24, 2008, Raul has hammered away at the idea of Cuba needing to save money and resources by becoming more efficient. "It’s a matter of survival," he has said on more than one occasion.

Over the past year in office, Raul has spearheaded drives to reform state-run companies, open up the agricultural sector and to downsize government. Under his mandate, the younger Castro has even supported economic incentives, almost a treasonous idea to the elder Fidel Castro who organized Cuban society around the ideas of equality and egalitarianism.

With the Cuban state controlling over 90 percent of the economy, Raul’s push for economic reform has had an across-the-board affect.

His government has adopted modern management and accounting practices with local managers being granted more day-to-day decision-making power.

Both state and private farmers can now legally charge higher prices for their products after meeting state quotas. And, in some industries, Cuba has abolished nationally set wage ceilings so that salaries are tied to both an individual's performance and that of the collective.

Raul also has allowed Cubans to buy computers, own mobile telephones, rent cars and spend nights in hotels previously only accessible to foreigners. While most cannot afford such luxuries on their low wages, people generally applauded the end to the discriminatory practices in the Cuban market.

'Two plus two always makes four – not five'
But Raul was forced to curtail his economic and social reform drive after three devastating hurricanes swept the island last season and caused some $10 billion in damages, equal to 10 percent of Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product.

During the 2008 closing session of parliament, Raul revealed that recovery could easily take up to six years but that "this did not mean reforms have been shelved."

At that meeting he turned the spotlight on government deficiencies, calling the lack of accountability and waste in government spending one of the "fundamental problems" of Cuba’s socialist system. He revealed plans to set up a watchdog agency on government spending, eliminate some $60 million a year in state-run company bonuses and cut in half all travel perks for Communist Party and business leaders while promising to raise wages and create jobs.

"We have to eliminate improper gratuities and bloated subsidies, otherwise the bills won't add up. Two plus two always makes four – not five," Raul said.